04/03/2008 12:00AM

Rivals rematched in Santa Anita Derby

Benoit & Associates
Colonel John beat El Gato Malo in last month's Sham Stakes.

ARCADIA, Calif. - It might not yet rise to the level of Affirmed and Alydar, or even the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, but the budding rivalry between Colonel John and El Gato Malo, who have emerged as West's best 3-year-olds, offers a compelling match in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on Saturday.

Colonel John beat El Gato Malo by a half-length in last month's Sham Stakes, though the trainers of both horses - even the victorious Eoin Harty - acknowledge posts and trips were paramount. On ability, they are separated by no more than the period at the end of this sentence. Round 2 is Saturday, and encouraging performances by both will send them to the Kentucky Derby, four weeks hence at Churchill Downs.

Nine others, however, hope to play villains in this story, most notably Yankee Bravo, who comes off a deceptively good third-place finish in last month's Louisiana Derby, and the speedy Bob Black Jack, who was a last-minute entrant when it looked like he would be excluded from next week's Arkansas Derby.

Although the outcome may be the same, the Santa Anita Derby should otherwise bear no resemblance to the Sham. Though both are 1 1/8-mile races, there were only five horses in the Sham and the pace was pedestrian, with the first six furlongs in 1:14.35. With a field of 11, and legitimate speed horses such as Bob Black Jack and Polonius, the Santa Anita Derby figures be a more truly run race.

"There should be a more legitimate pace," Harty said Thursday morning at Santa Anita as he watched Colonel John school at the gate and then gallop. "I would expect to be farther off the pace, hopefully in the clear, and hopefully without being given too much to do."

El Gato Malo was caught behind that slow pace in the Sham and could not catch Colonel John, who had the advantage of stalking from the outside. That was El Gato Malo's first loss after three wins.

"We just need the trip," said Craig Dollase, who trains El Gato Malo. "He didn't get the right trip last time, but he almost overcame it. It was a very good learning experience. There's going to be 20 horses in the [Kentucky] Derby, so he's going to have to overcome a little adversity.

"He's really come into his own of late. It doesn't have to be his best race. Hopefully, that'll be the first Saturday in May."

Like El Gato Malo, Yankee Bravo won his first three starts before a loss last time. And like El Gato Malo, Yankee Bravo ran well in defeat, finishing third behind Pyro in the Louisiana Derby. He drew the rail Saturday.

"He's only had four races," said Paddy Gallagher, who trains Yankee Bravo. "He's still young and learning."

Bob Black Jack was third in the San Felipe three weeks ago over a track that was not favoring his front-running style. Nine furlongs might be stretching his range, but he has earned a shot in this race. David Flores, his regular rider, is on El Gato Malo, so Richard Migliore has picked up the mount.

"They'll most likely have to run where we've already been," Migliore said.

Signature Move was a promising prospect earlier this meet, when he beat allowance horses, but he has not raced since the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 9.

"He had a horrible lung infection and he bled in the Risen Star," trainer Eric Guillot said.

Signature Move's last two works both were the best of the morning.

On the Virg has won two straight around two turns here after losing a sprint debut. He also has trained sharply coming into this race, according to Michael McCarthy, who oversees trainer Todd Pletcher's West Coast string.

"Outside of Colonel John, El Gato Malo, and Bob Black Jack, the rest of us are in the same boat," McCarthy said. "I don't know if it will happen on Saturday, but that horse will win a big race. He had a good work with Circular Quay the other day."

Coast Guard returns to a synthetic surface after a dreadful try on dirt in the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows.

Shore Do makes his first start for trainer Brian Koriner, and as a gelding. He was soundly beaten in his last two starts against horses of this caliber.

The Santa Anita Derby is the sixth race on an 11-race card that begins at noon Pacific time. It will be televised live by NBC in a one-hour telecast that begins at 2 p.m. Pacific and also includes the Wood Memorial from Aqueduct and the Illinois Derby from Hawthorne. The Santa Anita Derby is the first leg of a pick six that has a $1 million guarantee. On-track fans will get a free T-shirt.

Although it rained Wednesday night and Thursday morning, skies are supposed to be party cloudy, with temperatures in the low 70s on Saturday. The main track has had no drainage problems since being reformulated two months ago.

There are three other graded stakes here Saturday. Accomplished sprinters Surf Cat, Greg's Gold, and Johnny Eves are in the Grade 2, $200,000 Potrero Grande Handicap, the fourth race. Daytona is the one to catch in the Grade 2, $150,000 Arcadia Handicap for turf milers, the day's seventh race. And in the ninth race, Sweeter Still, Carnival Queen, and Gorgeous Goose head a deeply competitive field in the Grade 2, $150,000 Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old turf fillies.