01/17/2009 12:00AM

Square Eddie starts on path to Derby

Barbara D. Livingston
Square Eddie will make his first start as a 3-year-old in the Grade 3 San Rafael Stakes.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The only race that matters is not run in January at Santa Anita, which is why trainer Doug O'Neill smiled when he spoke.

"We don't want to look past Saturday," he said, even though everyone does. It is 15 weeks until the first Saturday in May; the time to get started is now.

Square Eddie returns from an 83-day layoff Saturday in the Grade 3 San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita, his first start since a runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. It also is his first start since skipping the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity, a Dec. 20 race at Hollywood Park that is sponsored by Square Eddie's owner, J. Paul Reddam.

"Even though that's Paul's sponsored race, he was adamant - let's just give [Square Eddie] a breather," O'Neill explained. "We know what we want to target for next year."

Besides, Square Eddie had done enough as a 2-year-old. He raced four times in Europe, scored a crushing U.S. debut victory in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland on Oct. 4, and then wheeled back three weeks later to finish second in the Breeders' Cup.

"He'd had a pretty good campaign, he'd already had six starts as a 2-year-old," O'Neill said. "There was never a question of do we want go after Paul's money" by running in the CashCall.

Instead, Square Eddie was turned out for two weeks and returned to his Hollywood base in November to prepare for the rigors of the Kentucky Derby trail.

Square Eddie faces a largely unproven field Saturday, and if he reproduces his 2-year-old form, he and jockey Rafael Bejarano should win the one-mile stakes.

"He's ready to run a big race, but at the same time a race that he's going to build from," O'Neill said.

The San Rafael field includes sharp maiden winner The Pamplemousse, likely pacesetter Feisty Suances, Group 2-placed European import Ryehill Dreamer, and maiden winners Brother Keith and Papa Clem. Fiddlers Afleet and Charlie's Moment also entered.

Based on O'Neill's record with comeback 3-year-olds, Square Eddie should fire first start back. Great Hunter, a Grade 1-winning 2006 juvenile, won his 3-year-old debut at Santa Anita in March; the 2005 champion juvenile Stevie Wonderboy was a solid second in his comeback as a 3-year-old. O'Neill expects Square Eddie to follow suit.

"I've intentionally spaced his workouts a little bit, to keep him good and solid and ready for this campaign, but not completely 110 percent cranked," O'Neill said.

If the favorite needs a race, the same might be true for Ryehill Dreamer, a European import has not raced since August and never on a synthetic surface. Owned by Marsha Naify and trained by John Shirreffs, Ryehill Dancer arrived early last fall.

"When we got him, we were thinking Breeders' Cup [Juvenile Turf] and Generous, but we decided to give him a little extra time and go this route," Shirreffs said.

Ryehill Dreamer won a listed stakes and placed in a Group 2 in Ireland and is making his first start on a surface other than grass.

"Synthetics in general seem to be okay for grass horses," Shirreffs said.

Mike Smith rides Ryehill Dreamer, the only starter other than Square Eddie to place in a graded or group race.

Shirreffs was asked if Ryehill Dreamer is ready.

"He's a nice work horse," he said. "He's worked behind horses and he relaxes. He does things the right way. Hopefully, we see him in the middle of the pack and finish the right way."

Brother Keith won his Nov. 8 debut at Churchill Downs; the horses he beat all are still maidens. Feisty Suances, who also entered the California Derby on Saturday at Golden Gate, is expected to set the pace. Papa Clem won a slow-pace maiden race in his most recent start; Fiddlers Afleet has a win and four seconds in New York; and Charlie's Moment finished third in his most recent start Nov. 8 in the Real Quiet Stakes at Hollywood.

The Pamplemousse, a big, good-looking gray son of Kafwain, may pose the biggest threat to Square Eddie. He won a fast (89 Beyer Speed Figure) maiden race Dec. 14 at Hollywood and is racing Saturday over the track on which he trains.

His trainer, Julio Canani, said, "I don't have Derby fever." If true, he might be the only one.