04/01/2004 1:00AM

St Averil tantalizing play in talented field

Wimbledon's performance in the Santa Anita Derby could very well determine whether he is the Kentucky Derby favorite.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Of the runners in Saturday's $750,000 , Wimbledon might be the best prospect for the Kentucky Derby four weeks hence, the lightly raced Rock Hard Ten might have the most upside four months from now, and Imperialism, trained by 21-year-old Kristin Mulhall, might make the best story.

But the best gamble in the here and now just might be the consistent St Averil, who figures to be no better than the third choice in a Grade 1 race that has two distinct areas of interest - as a prep for the May 1 Derby, and as a fascinating component of an 11-race card in which it is part of a $1 million guaranteed pick six.

St Averil is battle-tested, having competed in three graded stakes since a victory against maidens in his debut. He has enough speed to lay close to what should be a moderate early pace. He comes off a narrow loss in last month's San Felipe Stakes, a race in which he was hounded by trouble both before and during the race.

St Averil has had problems with his feet. "His heels are a little tender," said his trainer, Rafael Becerra. As a result, St Averil had to train in bar shoes prior to the San Felipe. He then had to dodge a loose horse in the race, yet closed resolutely and just missed catching Preachinatthebar.

Though favored at 6-5 in the San Felipe, St Averil figures to fall through the cracks on Saturday and offer good value.

"He's the kind of horse who gives you everything he's got all the time," Becerra said. "And I haven't had to train him in bar shoes this time. His feet are better."

St Averil has never finished worse than second in four starts. In his second start, he gamely chased Lion Heart before settling for second in the Hollywood Futurity. He then captured the Santa Catalina Stakes, beating Master David, who subsequently won the Sham Stakes.

Freshened for two months, St Averil was then an unlucky loser in the San Felipe. He had to give six pounds (122-116) to Preachinatthebar that day. In the Santa Anita Derby, all starters carry 122 pounds.

The San Felipe was the coda to a difficult week for Becerra. He lost his 52-year-old brother, Joe, to a stroke one week earlier.

"It's still tough. It's going to be tough," Becerra said. "Especially when you're used to seeing him every day."

St Averil breaks from the outside post, but in a seven-horse field, and with a lengthy run to the first turn in this 1 1/8-mile race, that should not matter.

More significant concerns are his worthy rivals.

Wimbledon, a tall, gazelle-like colt, has finally displayed the ability at which he had hinted for months. He took five starts to beat maidens, but then jumped right into the Louisiana Derby and scored a 2 1/4-length victory. His performance on Saturday could very well determine whether he is the Kentucky Derby favorite.

"He just took awhile to get going," said his trainer, Bob Baffert, who will be seeking his fifth Santa Anita Derby victory. "We haven't seen his distance limitations yet, but you really don't know until you go a mile and an eighth."

Rock Hard Ten has created a buzz with fast victories against maidens and then first-level allowance runners. The dark, rugged, physically imposing colt is taking a huge jump in class for his third lifetime start, but there is no time to waste with the Kentucky Derby on the horizon.

"He just keeps improving," said his trainer, Jason Orman. "We're just taking it race by race. We think he deserves to be in the race. That's why he's running."

Imperialism has won two stakes - the San Vicente and San Rafael - since moving to Mulhall's barn. His late charge was flattered by the fast early pace in both those races. The fractions of the Santa Anita Derby do not figure to be nearly as quick, so he will have to adapt.

Quintons Gold Rush raced wide throughout when finishing fourth in the San Rafael, which was only his third career start. He defeated Wimbledon in a Jan. 18 maiden race.

Lucky Pulpit was eighth in the San Rafael, but trainer Cliff Sise said his colt "flipped his palate or displaced, one of the two." He was second to St Averil in the Santa Catalina.

Castledale was sixth in the San Rafael, which was his first try on dirt. His trainer, Jeff Mullins, won the Santa Anita Derby last year with Buddy Gil.

The Santa Anita Derby is the eighth race on a card that begins at noon Pacific time. Preceding it is the $150,000 Arcadia Handicap, for older turf horses, which includes Ballingarry, and later in the day is the $100,000 San Bernardino Handicap, featuring the comeback of Dynever.

The Santa Anita Derby is part of a 90-minute ESPN telecast that begins at 5:30 p.m. Eastern. As in year's past, Santa Anita will give away T-shirts featuring caricatures of the Santa Anita Derby runners.

The field

Santa Anita Derby
Purse: $750,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 1

1ImperialismV. Espinoza1229-2
2Lucky PulpitJ. Court1228-1
3WimbledonJ. Santiago1225-2
4CastledaleJ. Valdivia Jr12215-1
5Quintons Gold RushC. Nakatani1226-1
6Rock Hard TenD. Flores1223-1
7St AverilT. Baze1223-1

* Odds by Michael Hammersly

* Television: Saturday, 5:30-7 p.m., ESPN