03/30/2005 1:00AM

Southern Africa leads derby field

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The first four finishers from the Feb. 27 Borderland Derby, the top local 3-year-old, and a surprise from the Bob Baffert barn passed the entry box Wednesday for Saturday's $500,000 at Sunland Park.

The track's biggest day of racing will also include the $250,000 WinStar Sunland Park Oaks for 3-year-old fillies.

The 1 1/8-mile derby lured a field of eight, headed by Southern Africa. By virtue of his strong win in the Borderland Derby, Southern Africa figures to be favored for trainer Michael Puhich. A European import, Southern Africa added blinkers for the Borderland. A repeat of his performance in that race will be tough to counter. He drew post 7 for Saturday and will be ridden by Jon Court.

Thors Echo and Dover Dere, second and third in the Borderland, are both from the barn of leading Santa Anita trainer Doug O'Neill. Thors Echo set the pace in the Borderland, opened up in midstretch, but couldn't keep Southern Africa at bay. He has worked well since and will be ridden for the second straight time by Corey Nakatani. Dover Dere made a strong early move in the Borderland but then faltered.

Cajun Pepper went into the Borderland as the hottest 3-year-old on the grounds after having won his first five career outings by nearly 30 lengths. He showed high speed in the Borderland but gave way badly to finish last of 11. The Borderland was his first route and his first race in two months.

The Baffert-trained Sort It Out has rubbed elbows with some of the top 3-year-olds. He won the Whirlaway at Aqueduct on Feb. 12 and most recently was eighth behind High Limit in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.

Eight 3-year-old fillies entered the 1 1/16-mile Oaks. Much like the derby, the Oaks field is headed by invaders.

Island Escape, based in Southern California for trainer Marcelo Polanco, comes off a smart stakes win at Turf Paradise.

Cee's Irish, trained by O'Neill, comes off a tough loss in a mile turf stakes at Santa Anita and prior to that chased the red-hot Summerly in the Grade 2 Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds. Cee's Irish is awfully quick and beat Island Escape by a nose in the Dec. 19 Corte Madera at Golden Gate.

The best local hope likely rests with Dayglogreen, who has easily won her last two, including a stakes here on March 12.