03/14/2006 1:00AM

Steppenwolfer to relish added ground in Rebel

Jeff Coady / Coady Photography
Steppenwolfer revealed his budding talent by dominating an allowance race in February.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Up to this point, Steppenwolfer has had to play their game, racing at distances that are less than optimum for him. But the big, long-striding colt will get a little more of the ground he craves on Saturday, when he starts in the Grade 3, $300,000 Rebel Stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park.

Steppenwolfer could be third choice in the 1 1/16-mile race after he closed from ninth to second last out in the $250,000 Southwest at one mile over this track. He finished within three-quarters of a length of Lawyer Ron, who will be one of the top choices in the Rebel along with Grade 2 winner Private Vow.

The race is key for Steppenwolfer, who is climbing Daily Racing Form's Derby Watch and was 40-1 last week. It is a chance for him to distinguish himself in quality company, and it should put him on his game for the 1 1/8-mile race in the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 15.

Steppenwolfer has improved with each of his races, and his trainer, Dan Peitz, is hopeful that he will move forward again Saturday.

"If we're correct in our thinking - the farther the better - then that pattern should continue," said Peitz.

Steppenwolfer began to attract attention in February, when he won a two-other-than allowance at a mile at Oaklawn. The race ended at the sixteenth pole, as do all races at that distance here. He showed excellent acceleration on the final turn, took the lead in the stretch, and went on to a 4 1/2-length win to earn a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 93. Steppenwolfer was ridden by Robby Albarado, who is 2 for 2 on the colt and will ride him again in the Rebel.

"I would say the allowance race here was the first race where we really thought for the first time maybe we saw a glimpse of his true ability, that the lightbulb's finally going off," said Peitz. "Then he came back in the Southwest and kind of confirmed what we thought. Now, we've got a few more steps to take. He's had a very good pattern of just running a little faster, a little farther, and if we can just keep doing that . . ."

Steppenwolfer, who has won 3 of 6 starts, trumped his allowance win in the Southwest, when he closed from 11 lengths back to finish second to front-running winner Lawyer Ron and earn a Beyer of 94. He will have his work cut out for him facing that rival again, but he figures to be the biggest threat in the longer stretch run of the Rebel, and, Peitz suspects, even more so at the longer distance of the Arkansas Derby.

"He's a big, strong horse with a big stride, and he has a pedigree that says probably mile and a quarter," said Peitz. "It's everything you're looking for."

Steppenwolfer, a son of 2000 Kentucky Derby runner-up Aptitude, has been sold twice at auction. His breeder, Nursery Place, sold him for $25,000 to Eisaman Equine in 2004 at Keeneland September. Eisaman Equine then turned around and sold him for a sale-topping $375,000 at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. auction of 2-year-olds in training last April.

"I wish we would have gotten him," said trainer Steve Wren, whose client, Kaaren Biggs, was the underbidder on Steppenwolfer. "He looked the part. He worked good. We liked the way he moved."

Robert and Lawana Low of Missouri cast the winning bid, and sent Steppenwolfer to Peitz, who has trained for them for more than a decade. Among the horses he has trained for the Lows are Capote Belle, a Grade 1 winner of $603,315; Real Cozzy, a Grade 2 winner of $464,840; and Green Fee, a Grade 2 winner of $494,545.

Peitz, 48, is a native of Little Rock, Ark. He races in New York and at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, but this year is at Oaklawn because of Hurricane Katrina. Steppenwolfer is now based in the same barn at which Peitz got his start on the racetrack, as a hotwalker for trainer Paul Adwell in 1977.

Steppenwolfer has been settled in at the barn since the day before Thanksgiving.

"I think we're happy with where we are with him, how he's been training," said Peitz. "Everything's positive. We'll go to the Rebel and see if we get a little more pace in there."

Peitz will also be pleased to have a little more stretch to work with.