03/24/2003 1:00AM

Rebel top three to meet again

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The first three finishers in the $125,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on Saturday - Crowned King, Great Notion, and Comic Truth - will run back in the Grade 2, $500,000 Arkansas Derby.

The Rebel, run over 1 1/16 miles, was the final local prep for the Arkansas Derby, which will be run at 1 1/8 miles on April 12.

Great Notion was the 3-5 favorite for the Rebel based on his nine-length romp in the $75,000 Southwest Stakes here March 1. But his race was lost at the start Saturday.

"He broke a little tardy and spotted the other horses four or five lengths," said Darrin Miller, who trains Great Notion. "Then he went, and was fanned wide around the [first] turn."

Despite the trouble, Great Notion was in control of the race by the opening quarter, which he ran in 23 seconds. From there, he led through quick fractions of 46 seconds for the half and 1:11.26 for six furlongs, but he could not hold off a late bid by 36-1 shot Crowned King.

"I'm proud of him," said Miller. "He ran very game, very hard. I know he can get a mile and an eighth. He ran a mile and an eighth."

Owned by Silverton Hills Farm, Great Notion has won 3 of 5 career starts. Earlier this year he was second, beaten a nose by Champali, in the $50,000 Prevue at Turfway Park.

Crowned King, whose Rebel win was his second in a stakes, shipped back to his Louisiana Downs base Saturday night. He came out of the race in good condition, trainer Billy McKeever Jr. said Monday.

"He came back excellent," said McKeever. "He was squealing in the test barn, playing, jumping and bucking."

There were a number of reasons McKeever brought Crowned King to Oaklawn for the Rebel after his third-place finish to Cat Genius in the $75,000 Sportsman's Paradise at Delta Downs.

Crowned King closed from last in that race, which was run on a six-furlong oval, and McKeever thought the performance earned him a shot at the Rebel. McKeever also thought the surface at Delta was similar to Oaklawn's, which he thought would benefit the colt Saturday.

It was the hope of McKeever's late father that Crowned King would get the chance to develop into a quality 3-year-old. At the request of his father, McKeever had run Crowned King in stakes for 3-year-olds at Fair Grounds. McKeever's father died two days before Crowned King finished third in the $75,000 Sugar Bowl Dec. 31.

"He wanted to go through the series at Fair Grounds, and we did, with the exception of the Louisiana Derby," said McKeever. "Deep down, I know he would want to run in the Arkansas Derby."

McKeever trained Crowned King for his father, and now co-owns the colt with his brother, David.

Comic Truth, who was the favorite in the Southwest and third choice in the Rebel, was a little crowded on the second turn, but went on to finish third in an effort that will send him to the Arkansas Derby.

"We ran our race," said Cole Norman, who trains Comic Truth for K.K. and Vilasini Jayaraman.

Comic Truth is one of the most advanced 3-year-olds at Oaklawn. He has already won three stakes, and last year was second, beaten three-quarters of a length by Outta Here, in the $500,000 Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs. Outta Here is scheduled to run Saturday in the UAE Derby in Dubai.