04/06/2006 12:00AM

Plenty on line for Sacred Light

Sacred Light (left) needs a good effort in the Santa Anita Derby to propel him to Kentucky.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Five months after jockey Aaron Gryder returned to his native California, he cannot wait to leave town. But only for a key Saturday afternoon in May.

Gryder, 35, who previously rode primarily in New York, is hoping to ride the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 6 aboard the promising Sacred Light, his mount in Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

Sacred Light has yet to win a stakes, but did finish second to Santa Anita Derby favorite Brother Derek in the Grade 2 Santa Catalina Stakes on March 4. A win or a placing on Saturday would earn Sacred Light a trip to the Kentucky Derby.

"He's a colt that is maturing mentally," Gryder said. "Maybe a few have gotten to that level before he has. He has a lot of talent. When he realizes all that talent, I think a lot of people that are overlooking him will be surprised where he fits in the big picture."

Gryder rode Sacred Light for the first time in the Santa Catalina Stakes. He has worked Sacred Light in recent weeks, including six furlongs in 1:12 at Hollywood Park last Sunday.

"He finished up really nice," Gryder said of the workout. "We know that he has to improve and move forward. Every race, he's run against better horses and he's run a little better. A lot of the horses we see out there have possibly peaked. I think he has a lot of upside. Hopefully, it will come this Saturday."

Sacred Light, owned by John and Jerry Amerman and trained by David Hofmans, has never finished first in five starts. At Del Mar last August, he finished second by a head in a maiden race, but was promoted to first after the winner was disqualified.

In three starts this year, Sacred Light finished third in an allowance race in January, third in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes in February, and second in the Santa Catalina.

Gryder has ridden in the Kentucky Derby three times. His best finish was a 13th with Songandaprayer in 2001. Gryder said he remembers Songandaprayer as a miler, but says that Sacred Light, who is by Holy Bull, would be better suited to the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles.

"I've never ridden a horse [in the Kentucky Derby] that looks like they wanted a mile and a quarter," he said. "This would be the first time I would be going into [the race] and feeling like I have a chance on a horse with an upswing."

Through Wednesday, Gryder was 12th in the Santa Anita jockey standings with 27 wins. He won his second stakes of the meeting with Bettarun Fast in the Santa Paula Stakes last Saturday.

"I didn't set a number of how many I would win," he said. "It was more riding for the people I knew I needed to ride for. I thought it would take six to eight months to build a foundation and gain people's confidence. I'm happy to land a horse like Sacred Light."

Gryder, who grew up in nearby West Covina, rode in Southern California until the late 1980's and for one season here in 2004. The return to California allows his two children to be closer to family.

"It's been a very promising start," he said. "I came back here because it's my home and it's good for our kids to be around their grandparents. I don't know why it took so long to come out."

Million-dollar pick six on Saturday card

Saturday's 11-race program begins at noon and features a $1 million guaranteed pick-six pool. The pick six covers the sixth through 11th races, a sequence that begins with the Santa Anita Derby.

The other pick-six races are the Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on turf, a sprint for California-bred maidens, the Grade 2 Arcadia Handicap at a mile on turf, a starter allowance for sprinters, and a $40,000 claimer on turf.