02/25/2005 12:00AM

Shippers take shots at Cajun Pepper


The unbeaten Cajun Pepper may be the baddest 3-year-old on the circuit, but that hasn't scared away the new shooters who are shipping in to take a swipe at him in Sunland's $104,800 on Sunday. The Borderland, which serves as a prep for the meet's marquee event, the $500,000 WinStar Derby on April 2, has lured a field of 12.

The 1 1/16-mile Borderland is also the first leg of a Sunland bonus series, with a $500,000 prize for the owner of the horse who can sweep the Borderland Derby, WinStar Derby, and Kentucky Derby.

Cajun Pepper, a Colorado-bred, has been nothing short of dazzling since his debut at Arapahoe Park in Colorado last summer. He has won all five of his outings by a collective 27 lengths and has basically been unchallenged in the lane.

Most recently, Cajun Pepper scored an easy victory as the 3-5 favorite in the Riley Allison Futurity here Dec. 26. He hasn't raced in 2005, so he must deal with a layoff, the toughest opposition he has ever seen, and his first race past 6 1/2 furlongs.

Cajun Pepper also makes his first start for a new trainer as Jose A. Gonzalez takes over for his brother, Ramon Gonzalez, who began a 360-day suspension Friday after six of his horses tested positive for the banned substance naproxin. Ken Tohill will ride.

Despite his record, Cajun Pepper may not go favored. That honor may fall to West Coast invader Dover Dere.

Trained by Doug O'Neill, who won the 2003 WinStar Derby with Excessivepleasure, Dover Dere comes off a third-place finish in the Golden Gate Derby on Jan. 15. He pressed the pace as the 3-5 favorite but couldn't keep up with Buzzards Bay and Sharp Writer in the stretch. Dover Dere signaled his readiness for this with a dazzling six-furlong work in 1:10 at Hollywood Park on Feb. 13. Omar Figueroa rides.

Thor's Echo has only a maiden win to his credit, but he gives O'Neill, his new trainer, another shot at this. A son of Swiss Yodeler, Thor's Echo romped by four lengths at Santa Anita on Jan. 21 for a 98 Beyer. Corey Nakatani comes in for the ride.

Another Southern California invader, Southern Africa, merits respect for trainer Michael Puhich. Originally campaigned in England, Southern Africa shipped to the United States in the fall and chased eventual juvenile champion Declan's Moon in two graded stakes at Hollywood Park. He was last seen finishing seventh behind Going Wild in the Feb. 5 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. Garrett Gomez will ride.

The invaders are not just coming from the West, either. El Batallon ships in for trainer Steve Asmussen after winning a mile allowance at Oaklawn on Jan. 22 with a 92 Beyer. Donnie Meche has the call.