02/20/2002 1:00AM

Raven Power can run off from the rest

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Derby fever will be in the air Friday at Santa Anita, where five Triple Crown nominated colts race 1 1/16 miles in the seventh-race feature. At stake is a $54,000 purse and a berth on the Kentucky Derby trail. If the race unfolds without incident, finding the winner is a simple matter of identifying the pacesetter.

Although Raven Power is widely considered a sprinter, he will be loose on the lead against a field that either will not, or cannot, challenge him early.

Sunday Break stretches out from a sharp seven-furlong maiden win, and assuredly will be content to sit second. Hot Contest, Azillion, and Gold Dollar are not fast enough to keep up even if they wanted to.

It is a blackboard race, even if Raven Power is limited by distance. Trainer Bruce Headley refutes the notion. "His body says he can run any distance," Headley said. "He's not short-coupled, he's got a long stride, and I've been training him all along for a distance."

The race will be Raven Power's second try around two turns, and follows his initial Jan. 30 route, in which he staggered the final quarter-mile in more than 26.40 seconds and was nailed by Pelirrojo. "That was only the second race of his life, a horse has a right to improve," Headley argues. He is right.

In fact, Raven Power's race was better than the raw time (1:37.93) suggests. The track was dead on Jan. 30, playing more than a second slow in routes. Stretching to two turns off a single sprint debut, Raven Power had a right to tire, but in his subsequent Feb. 16 work at seven furlongs, Headley said Raven Power went the first three furlongs in 40 seconds, and "flew the last part." By Headley's calculations, Raven Power would have gone the final half in 47.20 seconds. Perhaps two turns is within reach, after all.

He may never get an easier chance. Raven Power, by Known Fact and out of a Bold Ruckus mare who was a pure sprinter, was one of four 2-year-olds Headley chose from Frank Stronach's farm in Florida, and his physical attributes make it easy to see why. He is large and carries a great deal of flesh. "If he runs like he looks and feels, it's all over," said Headley.

Sunday Break's form was flattered Monday when the horse he beat, Relentless Seller, returned to win a maiden race. Late-runner Hot Contest adds blinkers to "keep him focused," according to trainer Ray Bell. Azillion also will run late.

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