01/21/2004 12:00AM

Spellbinder main rival for Dwango


ARCADIA, Calif. - If the Santa Anita Derby were next week, trainer Bob Hess would be in trouble. He admits that his best 3-year-old "has a lot to prove."

It hardly makes the colt, Dwango, unique. After all, it is only January. But the Derby trail starts early nowadays, and Dwango has disappointed once already. If he does it again Friday in a one-other-than allowance, perhaps he is not as good as Hess believed, though the trainer expects Dwango to "run huge."

is one of six entered in race 4 on Friday at Santa Anita, a one-mile event in which he may not even be the most likely winner. Spellbinder, who finally put it all together in his fifth career start, has established himself as a genuine two-turn colt and a serious threat to the favorite despite missing four days of serious training.

The four others entered are Bornwithit, who was dead short when he squeaked out a low-rated victory in his first start for Bob Baffert; the Hess-trained Gem of a Day, wheeled back in a week after a strong win against Cal-bred maidens; and two new shooters for trainer Doug O'Neill - Calder shipper Gold Bankers Gold and Golden Gate shipper Silent Gold.

Despite Dwango's 1 1/2-length loss last time at odds of 4-5 on Dec. 27, Hess has not lost confidence. "We were trying to teach him something" - how to rate - "but I was extremely disappointed with his effort," Hess said. "He coughed a little bit going into the race, and was quiet. I probably should never have run him."

Hess said there are "zero issues" with Dwango on Friday, and he expects the colt to reproduce his six-length maiden win one start back. Kent Desormeaux rides Dwango, who has trained well since his last race.

was scheduled to run Saturday in the Grade 2 Santa Catalina, but he missed four days of training with a minor foot problem. Trainer Richard Mandella does not expect the temporary setback to affect his effort Friday. "We walked him under tack for four days, and he came back and worked well," Mandella said. "I think he's still there."

The knock on Spellbinder's maiden win is that the colt he beat, Wimbledon, returned Sunday to lose at 7-5.

Bornwithit is expected to improve in his second start in California; he missed considerable training time leading into his first start for Baffert.

A good field of older turf runners, led by Denied, will race a mile on grass in race 7. The optional $125,000 claimer also includes Inesperado and Apache Wings.