01/20/2006 12:00AM

Real Whilly will show up in San Marcos

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The enigmatic Whilly (left), shown winning the American Handicap at Hollywood Park in July, is in a good spot in Sunday's San Marcos.

PHOENIX - Trainer Doug O'Neill likely spends most of his day thinking about potential future glory with Stevie Wonderboy, or the possibilities of his Grade 1-winning older horse Lava Man. But he also trains Whilly, who, despite being a graded-stakes winner and a top contender in Sunday's San Marcos Handicap on the Santa Anita turf, certainly has been a study in frustration.

Last March, Whilly finished second to top-class Australian runner Elvstroem in the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free, encouraging O'Neill to send him to some of the big races back home. But Whilly has foiled O'Neill's plans by running poorly on some big days.

After the Dubai Duty Free, he came back in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood May 30, but dueled for the lead and faltered. He got back on track with a wire-to-wire win in the Grade 2 American Handicap at Hollywood on July 3. It was a nice race to be sure, but the entire nation wasn't watching.

It was watching the Grade 1 Arlington Million on Aug. 13, but Whilly led early on the yielding turf, then was hailing a cab at the quarter pole. Back in the friendly confines of Southern California, he was dull in the Grade 2 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap. He bounced back with a strong second in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch at Santa Anita on Oct. 2, although he was disqualified for interference and placed fifth.

Still, O'Neill must have figured everything was back on track. He looked to the Far East for the Grade 1, $2.3 million Hong Kong Cup on Dec. 11, intending to give Whilly another chance to show he was special. But in late November, Whilly tested positive for an anabolic steroid in prerace testing required by Hong Kong, which does not allow such drugs. Had Whilly tested positive again, the cost of traveling to Hong Kong would not have been paid by the host organization, but would have been billed to the owner, Triple B Farms. And that's a big ticket.

O'Neill said that the steroid, administered in October, could have cleared Whilly's system before another prerace test was performed, but he did not want to take any chances. He opted to stay home. With no turf racing at Hollywood Park he was left with few options, and basically had to just keep Whilly happy and healthy.

But it's entirely possible it will all work out in the end. That's because Whilly finds himself in a good spot in the 1 1/4-mile San Marcos. Whilly has not only done his best work on this course, but is a proven commodity at this distance and level, and in fact won this race last year.

If you're doubting his quality, you need look no further than his Beyer Speed Figures. He ran a 105 in the Hirsch, the same number he got when he won the American a few months earlier. He posted a 102 when he won this race last year. And his Dubai race was spectacular. The winner was one of Australia's top horses, who went on to have more success in Europe. Finishing behind him that day were such Grade 1 or Group 1 stalwarts as Right Approach, Alkaadhem, Alexander Goldrun, Moon Dazzle, Key of Destiny, and Sights on Gold.

When Whilly won this race last year he beat the likes of Puppeteer and T. H. Approval. They're fine horses, but this year's edition is going to be stronger. The venerable The Tin Man is back and feeling good judging by his game head win here Dec. 28, his first start in a couple of seasons. Milk It Mick invades from Europe, where he was a Group 1 winner at 2 and Group 1-competitive at 3. Injuries limited him to just two starts in 2005, neither of which was pretty, but if healthy and comfortable in his new surroundings he certainly has quality to fear.

Then there's the enigmatic License to Run for trainer Bobby Frankel. He almost won the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup (finishing third by a neck) in his U.S. debut 13 months ago, but was dull as the 4-5 favorite in this race last year. He then romped in the washed-off-the-turf San Luis Obispo here and seemed back on track, but then wasn't seen again for over four months. And when he did resurface in the Grade 1 United Nations on soggy turf at Monmouth, he was no factor. Frankel has given him plenty of time off since.

But for Whilly it's a chance to show he's the real deal. That Dubai wasn't a fluke. That he can carry his speed. And that he can lead nice horses on a merry chase.