03/15/2007 12:00AM

A reach for the highest level again

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ARCADIA, Calif. - In this age of instant gratification, when nonwinners of a race other than maiden or claiming are regularly groomed for Kentucky Derby dates, it's nice to discover an owner and a trainer who have taken their time.

Such is the case with Level Red, a son of Aptitude who races for William and Suzanne Warren and trainer Dave Hofmans. As a late-blooming 2-year-old, Level Red needed three starts to become a winner, which was accomplished at 1 1/16 miles over Hollywood Park's synthetic surface. As a 3-year-old he has raced twice, staying clear of anything resembling a stakes race, and has rewarded his people with a sharp second and a win, again at

1 1/16 miles.

"I've always been high on this colt," said Hofmans, who is on a roll this year with the classy older filly Balance and the sprinting turf freak Desert Code. "But he's a little immature, and I wanted him to develop without throwing him to the real wolves."

Time has come, though, to make the leap. Level Red will be running at Santa Anita on Saturday in the San Felipe Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile event that has been won in the past by Affirmed, Hill Rise and Sunday Silence, and in the last 10 years by such emerging stars as Point Given, Fusaichi Pegasus, Medaglia d'Oro, and Free House.

Those were real wolves. Saturday's field, on the other hand, is coming up light on proven class, which is no surprise given the fact that there are only so many decent young 3-year-olds to spread among the ridiculous bounty of rich Kentucky Derby preps offered each spring.

But Todd Pletcher can't win them all - or Doug O'Neill for that matter - so top guys like Hofmans with one sharp bullet to fire must be given the benefit of the doubt. All it takes is a glance at Level Red's lines to realize he has been keeping fast company. In his second start he finished second to Ravel, winner of the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita and on his way to the Santa Anita Derby. In January, Level Red was a close second to Law Breaker, the colt who is heavily favored to take the $600,000 WinStar Derby at Sunland Park on Sunday.

Should Level Red pan out as a Kentucky Derby candidate, the vibrant pink and blue colors of William Warren would be back on the national stage just two years after Saint Liam's 2005 Horse of the Year campaign. Warren, chairman of Warren American Oil, summoned the name of his most famous horse when he hired Hofmans last spring to find him a colt of Derby potential.

"I'd actually met him 10 years ago when we were introduced by Chris McCarron," said Hofmans, who teamed with McCarron to win a Belmont Stakes and a Breeders' Cup Classic. "One day last year Mr. Warren called me up out of the blue. He said he'd had a lot of luck with Saint Liam and would like to buy some 2-year-olds turning 3 in hopes of getting on the Derby trail."

Saint Liam appeared to be the kind of horse who could be leveraged into a small racing empire. His record of 9 wins and 6 seconds in 20 starts defined him as an iron horse by

modern standards. His earnings of $4.4 million included a brave victory in the 2005 Breeders' Cup Classic from a bad post. He retired to Lane's End Farm with fanfare, setting up shop alongside fellow Horses of the Year A.P. Indy and Mineshaft.

Then, last August, Warren's luck with Saint Liam took a tragic turn. The 6-year-old stallion fractured a tibia while being led to his paddock, and no amount of veterinary expertise could save him. While the sporting world clung to media coverage of Barbaro's ongoing struggle to

recover from injuries sustained in the Preakness, the grim tale of Saint Liam's end came and went in barely a weekend news cycle.

Now, the colts and fillies of Saint Liam's one and only foal crop have begun to hit the ground.

"He was bred to something like 144 mares, and got around 130 of them in foal," said Suzanne Warren this week from their West Coast residence in La Jolla, Calif. Breeder Jim Conway, she said, "just sent us a photograph of his first foal, and it's the cutest thing. But they all are, so we'll see."

In the case of Saint Liam, each of his foals will be a poignant reminder of what might have been. Level Red, on the other hand, is full of what could be. As a grandson of A.P. Indy and Strawberry Road, there would seem to be nothing in terms of pedigree standing between Level Red and the stiffest possible tests. Great Hunter, another son of Aptitude, already is carrying the torch as a strong Derby contender. And Hofmans, who bought Level Red privately for the Warrens, is having trouble finding something not to like.

"He's a big, plain bay horse," Hofmans said. "Very well made, strong all over, and a good head. Smart as can be. He's been easy."

Good thing, too, because now it gets hard.