08/12/2003 11:00PM

Soto belongs among division's best

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PHILADELPHIA - The fastest 3-year-old in America is not Funny Cide, Empire Maker, or Peace Rules. It is an unbeaten son of Dehere who trains at Tapeta Farm in North East, Md., and has yet to race in a Grade 1 stakes.

Soto looked to have Triple Crown potential when he won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last November. A shin problem kept him away from the preps and the big show.

Trainer Michael Dickinson never rushes anything and he did not rush Soto. The colt did not make his 3-year-old debut until July 19 at Philadelphia Park. He overwhelmed a weak allowance field, and could not have looked better doing it. He ran six furlongs in 1:08.80, earning a 106 Beyer.

Ten summers after his sire swept the 2-year-old stakes at Saratoga, Soto was going to get his chance at some cash, if not Triple Crown glory. The $600,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park was the richest race in America last Saturday. The field appeared to be filled with talent. This was going to be no easy race.

Soto surged to the leader early. He pushed the pace. He opened up a nice lead on the far turn. Dynever, sitting fourth in a perfect spot, got untracked on the turn and looked like a certain winner when he turned for home. Only he could not get by Soto. Doing his best Da Hoss impression, Soto simply would not let Dynever pass, winning by a neck.

Soto ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:46.29, a second faster than the track record. The track was ridiculously souped up for Mountaineer's big day, but the final time was still good enough for a 114 Beyer, tied for the fastest of the year by a

3-year-old going two turns. Only Kafwain, who got a 115 in a one-turn race in February, and Funny Cide, who was awarded a 114 for his Preakness win, have run as fast.

Colita, coming off a 106 Beyer, was third, five lengths behind Dynever. Mobil, who had been second in the Queen's Plate behind Canadian Triple Crown winner Wando, was a distant fifth. After the first two, the field was spread out, a clear sign this had been a serious race contested by two very serious horses.

So, what's next for Soto, now 5 for 5?

Dickinson really wants to run the colt in the Sept. 1 Pennsylvania Derby at Philadelphia Park.

"We'd like to go there,'' Dickinson said. "That was our plan, but he lost a lot of weight. It was a tough race, a long ship, a hard track, and he wasn't quite fit. We really like the people at Philly. But it's coming back in three weeks and I don't think we'll get away with it.''

Dickinson isn't concerned that Philadelphia Park might be raising the purse of the Pennsylvania Derby from $500,000 to $750,000 in an attempt to attract Peace Rules. He also isn't concerned that if Barclay Tagg feels he doesn't have enough time to get Funny Cide ready for the Aug. 23 Travers, he too might consider the Pa. Derby. Nor does it bother him that Toccet may make his comeback in time to run in the Pa. Derby.

"If you're right you could beat anybody,'' Dickinson said. "If you're not, you could lose to anybody.''

The 114 Beyer says Soto is good enough to compete with the best. When and where will be determined by the horse and the trainer.

Dickinson is nothing if not patient.

Who else would bring out a 7-year-old who had not run in nearly four years in a race an hour before the West Virginia Derby? What other trainer would see that horse open at 1-5 before drifting up to 2-1 in that Mountaineer Park undercard stakes?

The horse was A Huevo. In the fall of 1999, the horse had paired up triple-digit Beyers. A variety of injuries kept the horse away from the track. When he was ready, Dickinson sent him to Mountaineer with Soto.

Alas, there was no happy ending. A Huevo flipped three times in the paddock. After finally getting him saddled, Dickinson had to watch as the horse missed the break and finished seventh. For anybody else, even that would have been a moral victory. Dickinson, however, expected to win.

"That's what can happen when you bring them back too quickly,'' the trainer of the fastest 3-year-old in America said.