03/30/2005 1:00AM

Southwest route to Churchill


ARCADIA, Calif. - Racing takes strange twists and turns, and so it goes that trainer Mike Puhich, Seattle born and raised, will find himself on Saturday afternoon in a windswept corner of New Mexico trying to win a half-million-dollar race with a Kentucky-bred colt named Southern Africa who established his worth by winning two small races in England.

As a viable path toward greater glory in the Kentucky Derby and beyond, the $500,000 WinStar Derby has yet to establish itself among the nation's traditional preps. Still, it has only been in existence for three years, and if California horses keep showing up the race is bound to stumble into one of those coveted Grade 3 ratings sooner or later, which means the purse money will count toward entry in an overfilled Kentucky Derby.

As far as Puhich is concerned, the trip to Sunland Park with his handsome, dark brown colt makes all the sense in the world. It worked last month, when Southern Africa tiptoed out of his Santa Anita digs to win the Borderland Derby, then hightailed it right back home. This time around, he was scheduled to leave on Thursday for the direct hop to El Paso, just across the Texas state line.

"He shipped down there great last time and everything went perfect . . . until the gates opened," Puhich said.

In the Borderland, Southern Africa had one of those trips you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Okay, maybe on your worst enemy.

"He fell on his head leaving there and had a real troubled trip going into the clubhouse turn," Puhich recalled. "Then, when he finally got in the clear and started making a nice run, another horse ducked out and he got knocked into the middle of the racetrack. I didn't think he had a prayer at the quarter pole."

O, ye of little faith. Southern Africa straightened into the stretch, took a bead on the leading Thor's Echo, and then reeled him in to win by 1 1/4 lengths. That effort should be enough to make Southern Africa favored on Saturday in the WinStar against fellow Californians Thor's Echo and Sort It Out, plus a collection of local hopefuls.

Southern Africa is a son of Blue Grass winner Cape Town who races for Al and Sandee Kirkwood, best known these days as the owners of Valentine Dancer, the two-time winner of the Sunshine Millions grass event for fillies and mares. They purchased Southern Africa privately from his English stable last summer, shortly after the colt won a race at Ascot in July. The plan, before the Kirkwoods intervened, was to send Southern Africa to Dubai for winter racing.

"He was trained over there by Gerald Butler, who used to work for Wayne Lukas, so the colt was pretty well Americanized," Puhich noted.

The repatriated Southern Africa made his American debut for the Kirkwoods in the Hollywood Prevue last November, but broke poorly and was no match for Declan's Moon. He tried Declan's Moon again in the Hollywood Futurity, finishing a creditable fourth, beaten just three lengths by the divisional champ.

Puhich took all the blame for Southern Africa's disappointing 3-year-old debut in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita in February, when he was well beaten by Going Wild at the end of nine furlongs.

"I think I did a little more with him than I should have," Puhich said. "He had two real strong works going into the Sham, then a fast blowout three days before the race. I thought he was the best horse in the race, but he never picked up the bit."

Puhich adjusted his training, then scanned the horizon for a race in which Southern Africa could shine. He picked the Borderland Derby, with its $100,000 purse, even though Puhich had never even been to Sunland Park.

"When I got there, I went into the casino, just to kill some time," Puhich said. "It was full, and then I walked into the grandstand area, and it was full, too, with a lot of families and real racing fans - a lot of young people having a good time. The best thing is you can get a Tecate for $1.50. Anytime you can throw a ten-dollar bill on the bar and buy a round, that's my kind of racetrack."

So far, Sunland Park also has been home sweet home to Southern Africa.

"This is not a knock on the horses in the Borderland and the WinStar, but you'd have to say the Sunland fields are definitely a step backward from the kind of horses he was running against in California," Puhich said. "Still, it looks like he'll probably be favored, and for $500,000 that's a nice problem to have. I guess it means you're placing him in the right spot, even if you don't get the graded-race winnings.

"I'm still optimistic that he can really put it all together and be a real good horse. And even if he doesn't make it to the Kentucky Derby, it's not the end of the world. We'll still have a pretty nice colt."