06/02/2006 12:00AM

Steppenwolfer sizzles in work

Steppenwolfer, third in the Kentucky Derby, signalled his readiness for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes by working a fast six furlongs Friday.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Tom McCrocklin has attended horse auctions for about eight years on behalf of owners Robert and Lawana Low with the goal of finding fillies that could race and eventually become broodmare prospects.

So McCrocklin was quite surprised in the spring of 2005 when, at the end of a telephone conversation, Robert Low said to him, "Go buy me a colt that can go a mile and a quarter.''

At the Ocala Breeders' Sales auction in April, McCrocklin tabbed a son of Aptitude as that horse. McCrocklin, who was given a rough budget of $250,000, went up to $375,000 for the gray son of Aptitude. The colt, whom the Lows named Steppenwolfer, made it to the Kentucky Derby - the 1 1/4-mile race Low had in mind - finishing a respectable third behind the winning Barbaro.

"It was like somebody placed an order and we filled it,'' said McCrocklin, who picks out horses for the Lows and also breaks them at a farm in Ocala, Fla.

After skipping the Preakness, Steppenwolfer is now poised to try 1 1/2 miles in Saturday's $1 million Belmont Stakes, the third and final leg of the Triple Crown. If his Friday workout at Belmont Park is any indication, Steppenwolfer will have a big shot in what is deemed by most handicappers as a wide-open affair.

As of Friday there were 11 3-year-olds being pointed to the Belmont. For only the third time in 36 years, the race will be run without the winners of the Kentucky Derby (Barbaro) or Preakness (Bernardini). Entries for the Belmont will be taken Wednesday morning in a traditional draw held in the Garden Terrace on the fourth floor of the track.

On Friday, Steppenwolfer breezed six furlongs in an eye-catching 1:10.36 over a wet training track listed as good. Jockey Heberto Castillo Jr. was aboard for the work, subbing for his brother-in-law, Jose Santos, who was at the airport. Belmont clockers timed Steppenwolfer in fractions of 12.16 seconds, 24.00, 35.65, and 47.06. Steppenwolfer galloped out seven furlongs in 1:23.73 and continued out a mile in 1:37.62.

Castillo wasn't pushing on the horse, and the horse was not blowing back at the barn.

"He did it in a way that left my mouth open,'' Castillo said.

Trainer Danny Peitz moved the work up one day because of a forecast that called for several inches of rain in New York Friday night into Saturday.

"I put the Woody Stephens work into him,'' said Peitz said, referring to the Hall of Fame trainer who won five consecutive Belmonts in the mid 1980's. "Now we're going to stick him in the ice tub and leave him in there for three or four days.''

Asked if Steppenwolfer had worked that fast before, Peitz said: "Maybe when we bought him. It's taken me this long to get him back to where he was in the April sale.''

Though Steppenwolfer worked good enough before the auction to be the sales-topper, McCrocklin said Steppenwolfer didn't work nearly as well when he began training him as a 2-year-old.

"As a 2-year-old, he was always just a little heavy, just a little thick,'' McCrocklin said. "He was the guy that really needed to knock off 20 pounds to get to the next level.''

Steppenwolfer spent most of the winter with Peitz trying to get to the next level. He began the year with allowance wins at Louisiana Downs and Oaklawn Park, and spent the winter and early spring chasing Lawyer Ron in three stakes at Oaklawn. He finished second to that rival in the Arkansas Derby before finishing third in the Kentucky Derby.

Peitz's long-term association with the Lows has helped him get to the next level. In his youth, Peitz worked for trainers Joe Cantey and Paul Adwell. Peitz was a groom for Cantey when he won the 1980 Belmont Stakes with Temperence Hill at odds of 53-1. He began working for Adwell in 1977, the year after Adwell won the Preakness with Elocutionist.

Upon Cantey's retirement in the mid 1980's, he encouraged many of his owners to turn their horses over to Peitz, who was going out on his own. Most of his owners did and Peitz began his career with more than 20 horses, including some for Shadwell Stable.

In 1992, Peitz was introduced to Robert Low, who owns Prime Inc., one of North America's largest refrigerated trucking companies. Peitz's brother Alan worked in the parts department of Prime and had some win photos of his brother's horses at Oaklawn.

During his time training for the Lows, Peitz has trained the multiple-stakes-winning filly Capote Belle, who won the Grade 1 Test in 1996; Real Cozzy, who won the Fair Grounds Oaks and was second in the Kentucky Oaks in 2001; and Green Fee, who won the Grade 2 Kelso Breeders' Cup in 2002.

Though he had some success with the Lows, Peitz said there were dry spells when he thought he might get fired.

"It's so refreshing to have owners like them, through good times and bad times they've been so consistent with their dealings with me,'' Peitz said. "We went through months and months without winning races. Most of the times owners aren't satisfied with that.''

"I think they've been really good students,'' McCrocklin said of the Lows. "They've understood the thing you need most in this business is you need a good horse. You can take a bad horse and move him from barn to barn to barn and he's still going to be a bad horse.''

In Steppenwolfer, the Lows have a good horse. And, in Peitz's care, he appears to be getting better.

Belmont contenders

Horses pointing for the 138th Belmont at Belmont Park on June 10.

Bluegrass CatT. PletcherJ. Velazquez2nd, Ky. Derby
Bob and JohnB. BaffertG. Gomez17th, Ky. Derby
Deputy GlittersT. AlbertraniE. Prado8th, Ky. Derby
Hemingway's KeyN. ZitoJ. Rose3rd, Preakness
High FinanceR. VioletteE. Coa1st, Bel allowance
JazilK. McLaughlinF. Jara4th*, Ky. Derby
Oh So AwesomeJ. JerkensM. Smith3rd, Match the Hatch
Platinum CoupleJ. LostrittoJ. Espinoza6th, Preakness
Sacred LightD. HofmansV. Espinoza2nd, CD allowance
SteppenwolferD. PeitzR. Albarado3rd, Ky. Derby
SunriverT. PletcherR. Bejarano1st, Peter Pan

* - Dead heat