05/31/2006 11:00PM

Proposed gives sire new hope

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It could have been a home run of epic proportions, clearing the bases and rattling the rooftops from coastal California to central Kentucky. Once so uncommercial that breedings were given away, the stallion Benchmark was one race away from national acclaim and a serious five-figure fee.

But then Benchmark's son Brother Derek ran fourth in the Kentucky Derby, then fourth again in the Preakness, and the dream was over, at least for now. The family can still brag about Brother Derek's victories in the Santa Anita Derby and the Hollywood Futurity, not to mention the handsome record compiled by his full brother Don'tsellmeshort. Yet, there will always be that nagging "what if" lurking around the edges. Sires of Kentucky Derby winners don't come along every day.

There is a convenient lag time built in between the end of the high-profile Triple Crown - racing's version of sweeps month - and the beginning of bookings for the following breeding season. Marty Wygod, who stands Benchmark at his River Edge Farm, got a $10,000 stallion fee in 2006 for 115 mares and figures there is plenty of time to build on the goodwill established by Brother Derek, even though he failed to bring home the Holy Grail.

"I think by the fall of the year Brother Derek will be back running, and there will be others," Wygod said.

Right now, the "others" are led by Wygod's 4-year-old filly Proposed, who will be among a small group running Saturday in the Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park. Star Parade, winner of the 2004 Milady and third last year, heads the field going 1 1/16 miles on the main track.

Early in her career, Proposed labored in the long shadow of her full sister, Santa Anita Oaks winner Silent Sighs, as well as her stablemate Sweet Catomine, who won a Breeders' Cup race and an Eclipse Award before being retired in April 2005 in the wake of her controversial defeat in the Santa Anita Derby. Proposed, an innocent bystander, was transferred by Wygod from Julio Canani, trainer of Sweet Catomine, to John Shirreffs, who had trained Wygod's stakes-winning sprinter Yankee Gentleman.

With the stage suddenly to herself, Proposed went on to move quietly through the allowance ranks last year, winning 4 of 6 starts, before emerging as a full-fledged stakes horse during the recent winter Santa Anita meet. She won the El Encino Stakes for 4-year-olds and finished second to a rejuvenated Star Parade in the Santa Maria before a wet track compromised Proposed's chances in the Santa Margarita.

With races like the Milady and upcoming Vanity Handicap in mind, Shirreffs and Wygod tossed Proposed into a stakes race for California-breds on Hollywood's Gold Rush Day, April 30, and were rewarded with the kind of easy, three-length win at seven furlongs that good horses deserve every once in awhile.

"We thought about shipping back to Kentucky for the Humana Distaff," Wygod said, referring to the Derby Day race won by Pussycat Doll. "But we decided to go the easier route in the Cal-bred race, and get her real fresh for the races coming up. From what I've seen, I think it makes a major difference. I think you see them run a much better race after that. Still, she did run pretty fast the other day."

There are precious few standouts among the nation's older filly and mare division. So far this year, Round Pond, Happy Ticket, Pussy-cat Doll, Smuggler, Take D'Tour, Healthy Addiction, Spun Sugar, and Proposed have pretty much taken turns beating each other.

A win in the Milady could help any resume by the end of the year. And even though Saturday's running sports no monsters, the race itself has an admirable history, which includes back-to-back wins by Azeri, Paseana, Bayakoa, and A Gleam, as well as single scores by Silver Spoon, Typecast, Riboletta, and Gourmet Girl. All of them were champions.

Wygod and his wife, Pam, won consecutive Milady runnings in 1995 and 1996, with Pirate's Revenge and Twice the Vice. Both were trained by Ron Ellis, who also handled Benchmark through an injury-plagued career. Ellis managed to get only 14 races out of Benchmark, a son of Alydar, over four seasons, while Dave Hofmans trained him for two starts at the end of his career. Benchmark's first foals hit the ground in 2000.

"Marty bought him as a weanling" for $475,000, Ellis said. "And he was just a superb-looking horse, perfectly made. But he had chronic shin trouble, and we had to keep stopping on him."

Benchmark never really stood a steady campaign until 1997, at age 6. That year, he won three top stakes, including the Goodwood Handicap during the Oak Tree meet, a performance that figured to set him up perfectly for a try in the 1 1/4-mile Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park.

"He'd never run a mile and a quarter, which is always what he wanted to do," Ellis said. "But then he came out of the Goodwood with a chip, and he didn't get his chance."

In a way, he's getting it now.