01/30/2003 12:00AM

Is Siberland the real deal? We'll find out

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By running in races in Arizona or restricted to California-breds, Siberland has been flying below the radar. That all might change quite soon.

Siberland faces just four runners in Saturday's $100,000 Turf Paradise Derby, in which he figures to be a heavy favorite. If he runs as well in that race as he has in his last four starts - all victories - he will then step up and face the best Kentucky Derby prospects on the West Coast at Santa Anita.

"How far he'll go, I really don't know," his trainer, Kevin Lewis, said Thursday from Phoenix. Lewis was referring not only to Siberland's ability to handle a distance, but also how far he will travel down the Derby trail. "Once we leave Phoenix, it will be different," Lewis acknowledged. "It can get tough. We'll just see. I know one thing - he hasn't really had to run yet."

Siberland has breezed to victories at Turf Paradise in his last two starts. He was a 4 1/2-length winner of the 6 1/2-furlong Arizona Juvenile on Dec. 21, then stretched out to one mile on Jan. 12 and won the Rattlesnake Stakes by 10 1/2 lengths, earning a respectable Beyer Speed Figure of 96. Glenn Corbett, who is based at Turf Paradise, has ridden Siberland in his last two starts and will be aboard again on Saturday.

"That last race impressed me," Lewis said. "He just re-broke when the kid shook the reins at him."

What makes Siberland an interesting Derby prospect this year, however, is that he already has shown an ability to win against far better competition than he has been facing at Turf Paradise. Last summer at Del Mar - after a pair of losses at Hollywood Park - Siberland scored two impressive victories against Cal-breds by a combined margin of 13 lengths. He beat maidens, including subsequent stakes winner Crackup, by 6 1/2 lengths going six furlongs, then stormed home with a breathtaking turn of foot to take the six-furlong I'm Smokin' Stakes by 6 1/2 lengths on Sept. 9.

Lewis had intended to run Siberland in the California Cup Juvenile, so he took Siberland to Santa Anita for the Oak Tree meeting. But Siberland developed a temperature, something that befell many 2-year-olds earlier in the summer at Del Mar, and the decision was made by owner Dennis Weir to sit tight and wait for winter.

"We dodged the sickness at Del Mar, when everybody else got it," Lewis said. "About 10 days after the I'm Smokin', he worked; he worked awesome, but that afternoon, he had a temperature. It hung on longer than I thought it would. My vet, Vince Baker, told me exactly what would happen. He said it would go down, then spike back up, and that's what happened. His blood count was down. He was real sluggish for a long time. But once we got it turned around, he's done great."

Because of Siberland's development, Lewis last fall had been traveling back and forth between Santa Anita and his base at Turf Paradise. Once Siberland took ill, he was brought back to Turf Paradise to recuperate, putting all of Lewis's horses under one shed row.

"That was basically the owner's decision. It was the right decision," Lewis said.

Lewis, 40, trains 35 horses, 25 for Weir, whose company, Quality S Hitch Manufacturing in Phoenix, makes hitches for trucks.

"By keeping Siberland here, we could give him a couple of easy races, then see where we want to go," Lewis said. "I mean, if he gets whacked Saturday, we might look at races at Rillito. But if he runs like I think he will, he'll go to Santa Anita."

Ideally, Lewis said, the next stop would be the one-mile San Rafael Stakes on March 1.

That would mark quite an ascension for Siberland. A Cal-bred son of Siberian Summer, Siberland was purchased two years ago as a yearling for a mere $6,000, and was gelded.

"I know he cost just $6,000, but the class comes out of him," Lewis said. "He's not a hard horse at all. He's nice to be around. He does whatever you want him to do."