02/28/2005 1:00AM

SoCal invaders 1-2-3 in Borderland

Eric Alwan/Sunland Park
Southern Africa wins the $104,800 Borderland Derby by 1 1/4 lengths at Sunland Park on Sunday.

Southern California invaders dominated the $104,800 , led by Southern Africa, who powered home a winner under Garrett Gomez.

Sent off at 5-2, the Mike Puhich-trained Southern Africa got knocked around at the start. He steadily advanced and proved too strong for the others in the lane, pulling away to win by a 1 1/4 lengths. He paid $7.40.

The Borderland Derby was the first U.S. win for Southern Africa, who began his career in England and twice chased juvenile champion Declan's Moon at the Hollywood Park fall meet. He ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.18, just off the track record of 1:41.92, and earned $62,880 for owners Al and Sandee Kirkwood.

Puhich said the $500,000 WinStar Derby April 2 here might be next. Any horse that sweeps the Borderland Derby, WinStar Derby, and Kentucky Derby earns a $500,000 bonus.

Trainer Doug O'Neill's speedy Thor's Echo pushed the pace and opened up a three-length lead in upper stretch with Corey Nakatani in the saddle, but he had no answer for the winner, finishing second. O'Neill's second runner in the race, Dover Dere, was another four lengths back in third.

Top local 3-year-old Cajun Pepper, previously unbeaten in five starts, set the early pace under pressure, then faded when headed on the turn, tiring to finish 11th in the 12-horse field.