01/12/2004 12:00AM

Skipaslew's victory raises expectations

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ALBANY, Calif. - Merv Griffin, the creator of the game show "Jeopardy," hasn't even reached "double jeopardy" yet, but after his Skipaslew won the Grade 3 Golden Gate Derby on Saturday, he proclaimed, "We're on the path!"

It's the time of year for owners of stakes-winning 3-year-olds to dream of roses and the first Saturday in May in Kentucky.

Trainer Doug O'Neill is a bit more realistic, perhaps because Skipaslew may not be the best 3-year-old in his barn.

"We want to take the easiest possible road," O'Neill said of his approach to the Derby trail with the fast-maturing Skipaslew. "He doesn't have the build of your usual Triple Crown contender, but he has the heart, experience, and seasoning. If we duck the big boys, who knows what will happen?"

Skipaslew began his career in Southern California, but his last three starts have been in northern California, making him the region's leading 3-year-old.

His victory in the Golden Gate Derby produced the fastest 1 1/16-mile clocking of the Golden Gate Fields meeting. The race set up perfectly for him. He pulled away down the lane despite being hit in the head by an errant whip as he began to move into the stretch. But to put the performance in perspective, runner-up O.K. Mikie and Bensquito, a nose back in third, began their careers at the bottom maiden $12,500 claiming level.

The Grade 3, $200,000 El Camino Real Derby, a 1 1/16-mile race here March 13, is a logical step up for Skipaslew.

O.K. Mikie will probably be pointed to the $75,000 Sham Stakes at 1 1/8 miles Feb. 8 at Santa Anita, according to trainer Jerry McArthur. The Sham is the expected next start for Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Action This Day.

"I don't want to go back to a mile, and the 1 1/8 miles might be even better for him than 1 1/16 miles," McArthur said. "The timing of the Sham would be perfect for the El Camino."

"Skipaslew was much best, but he had a perfect trip," McArthur said. "I wish it set up better for us, but he came back all right. For everything that's happened, we're very pleased."

Trainer Steve Miyadi was equally pleased with Bensquito.

"The horse improved," he said. "He's a May foal, so he still has some growing to do."

Miyadi is looking for a Cal-bred allowance race at Santa Anita for Bensquito's next start, and he's also eager to try him on the turf.

Kilgowan, who won a one-mile allowance race Friday, and Tacky, third in the same race, look as if they fit with any of Saturday's derby participants.

Trainer Lonnie Arterburn will point Kilgowan to the $75,000 Golden State Mile on Feb. 8, and trainer Chuck Peery will look for a 1 1/16-mile allowance race for Tacky. Both are also pointing to the El Camino.

"What's always impressed me is he's such a big, strong horse," said Arterburn of Kilgowan. "He never gets tired."

Arterburn trained 2000 El Camino Real Derby winner Remember Sheikh, and he says Kilgowan is a better horse.

Off the schneid

Last year, trainer Jim Hilling had no wins from 42 starts, although he had nine seconds and five thirds.

He won with his second starter of 2004, when Heavenly Meeting scored a $33.80 victory under Chance Rollins in a maiden race for fillies and mares at one mile on the turf Sunday.

"I said to Chance in the paddock, 'Come on, I need one,' " Hilling said. "Chance said not to worry because this was a new year."

* Twelve 3-year-old fillies were nominated to Saturday's six-furlong $60,000-added Miss California Stakes including stakes winners Swingn' Notes, Uppity Kitty, Very Vegas, and Wildwood Flower.