03/12/2003 12:00AM

Santa Catarina rolls back in

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Santa Catarina, third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last fall, made a successful start to her 3-year-old season Wednesday with an easy win in a one-mile optional claimer.

Ridden by Gary Stevens, Santa Catarina rallied three wide on the backstretch, took the lead on the final turn, and pulled away under a hand ride to score by five lengths over Honest Answer. Santa Catarina ($2.60) was timed in 1:37.69, beating six other 3-year-old fillies.

The victory puts Santa Catarina on a path for the Kentucky Oaks in May with a potential stakes prep in between, trainer Bob Baffert said.

"She needed that race," Baffert said. "She was tired. We needed to start somewhere."

Owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, Santa Catarina has won two of six starts and placed in three Grade 1 races. Aside from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Arlington Park, Santa Catarina finished second in the Del Mar Debutante and Frizette Stakes last year.

The Lewises have a strong group of 3-year-old fillies aiming for the Kentucky Oaks. Last weekend, Composure, the runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, won her second Grade 1 of 2003 in the Santa Anita Oaks. Last month, she won the Las Virgenes Stakes.

Baffert said he was unsure where the two fillies would reappear.

"We're doing good with the fillies," Baffert said. "Now we can look for a race out of town."

Stretchout time for Buddy Gil

Two wins in sprint stakes since November have given the five-member partnership that owns Buddy Gil a reason to try the colt in Sunday's $250,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.

Whether Buddy Gil continues on the Kentucky Derby trail depends on how effective he can be over the San Felipe distance of 1 1/16 miles.

"I hate to put the cart before the horse, but he's training awesome," trainer Jeff Mullins said. "He's gained about 80 pounds since I got him, and his eyes are brightened. He's wanting it right now."

Owned by Scott Guenther, Charlie Johnson, Donnie McFadden, Tom Schreiber, and Rogers Severson, Buddy Gil won the Baldwin Stakes at about 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside turf course by two lengths at odds of 27-1 on Feb. 23. The Baldwin was his first start for Mullins. Previously based with Chuck Jenda, Buddy Gil finished fifth in the Gold Rush Stakes and seventh in the Golden Gate Derby. Last November, he won the six-furlong Golden Bear Stakes.

Mullins disputes the notion that Buddy Gil is only a sprinter with a reminder that he won a mile maiden race at Bay Meadows last October.

"We want to give him a chance to show what he can do," Mullins said. "He's not nominated to the Santa Anita Derby. If he runs a huge race, we'll think about it."

The Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes will be the most difficult race of Buddy Gil's career. He faces a field expected to include Atswhatimtalknbout, Brancusi, Buckland Manor, Domestic Dispute, Flirt With Fortune, Man Among Men, Siberland, and Ten Cents a Shine.

Last year, Mullins tried the Triple Crown preps with the late-running Lusty Latin, who finished third in the Santa Anita Derby but was 15th in the Kentucky Derby. He said Buddy Gil's tactical speed makes him a different kind of prospect.

"You didn't know if Lusty Latin would come along or not," Mullins said. "This horse is in the race the whole way."

Delta Form back from layoff

With a failed trip to Hong Kong in December behind him, Delta Form is scheduled to launch his 2003 campaign in Saturday's $250,000 San Luis Rey Handicap.

Delta Form, now 7, was a cut below the nation's top turf marathoners last year, winning the Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap but finishing third in the Turf Classic at Belmont Park and Hollywood Turf Cup.

In the $1.7 million Hong Kong Vase, Delta Form finished last of 14 in a performance that trainer Jenine Sahadi described as a "fiasco."

"It was hot and he bled," Sahadi said. "It was a fun trip, and that's all I can say."

The San Luis Rey Handicap is run over 1 1/2 miles on turf. The distance should suit Delta Form, but Sahadi worries that he may not be at his best off a layoff.

"He doesn't fire his best when he comes off the bench," she said. "But I didn't lose a lot of time with him. I walked him for 10 or 12 days when he got back and galloped him for a week."

The other probables include Adminniestrator, Blue Steller, Champion Lodge, Night Patrol, Special Matter, and Sumitas.

Some Dubai plans unchanged

A travel warning issued by the State Department earlier this week urging U.S. citizens not to travel to Dubai has not deterred the interest of several trainers in sending their horses for races on the undercard of the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 29. The warning stated concerns about conflict in the region involving Iraq.

On Wednesday, trainers Bill Currin, Doug O'Neill, Juan Pablo Silva, Warren Stute, and Mullins said they were sending their horses. Mullins trains Captain Squire, who is being pointed for the $2 million Golden Shaheen over six furlongs, and Lusty Latin, who will start in the $1 million Godolphin Mile on dirt.

"This doesn't change anything," Mullins said. "We're not real worried about it."

Other Southern California horses bound for Dubai include Outta Here for the UAE Derby (Currin), Avanzado for the Golden Shaheen (O'Neill), and Debonair Joe (Silva), and Grey Memo (Stute) for the Godolphin Mile.

Trainer Bobby Frankel said no decision has yet been made about whether Medaglia d'Oro would start in the Dubai World Cup. Julio Canani was also uncertain regarding Cayoke's participation in the Dubai Duty Free on turf.

Horses were scheduled to leave Saturday morning. Currin said Dubai officials contacted him on Wednesday and expressed some concern about how American trainers were reacting to the warning.

While the other Dubai shippers have won or placed in stakes this year, Outta Here has not started since winning the $500,000 Delta Jackpot Stakes in Louisiana in December.