01/12/2006 1:00AM

Stevie trying to stay on top

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Stevie Wonderboy, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and probable champion, gallops Wednesday at Hollywood Park with Sal Santiago riding.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Stevie Wonderboy may have won the 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but he is left with something to prove when he makes his 2006 debut in Saturday's $150,000 at Santa Anita.

The annual questions about whether a colt such as Stevie Wonderboy, the likely champion 2-year-old male of 2005, can replicate that form in the preps for the Kentucky Derby will be asked frequently.

Trainer Doug O'Neill welcomes the inquiries, even though Stevie Wonderboy will be the colt everyone is trying to dethrone in the buildup to the Kentucky Derby on May 6.

"It's an honor to have a horse that is considered the best Kentucky Derby prospect," O'Neill said. "I think there is much more pressure on guys with well-bred 3-year-olds who don't have Derby prospects."

The Grade 2 San Rafael has a small field, six entrants, but a formidable rival for Stevie Wonderboy in Brother Derek, who won the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity last month at Hollywood Park. The speedy Wanna Runner, the winner of his last two starts, is making his stakes debut.

The San Rafael is the most prominent graded stakes run on dirt for 3-year-olds so far this year, and serves as the beginning of the serious prep races to the Kentucky Derby.

For Santa Anita-based horses, other prep races such as the $200,000 Santa Catalina Stakes on March 4 and the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes on March 18 lead to the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 8.

Saturday's San Rafael will be televised on ESPN News at approximately 3:16 p.m. Pacific time, via a feed provided by HorseRacing TV.

O'Neill insists Stevie Wonderboy is ready, and that there is no added pressure for the colt's comeback.

"The main goal is the first Saturday in May. Hopefully, this is a winning step in the right direction," O'Neill said. "We think he's fit enough to win the race."

A winner of his last three starts for owner Merv Griffin, Stevie Wonderboy was given only a short break after his Breeders' Cup victory. The San Rafael is his first start in 11 weeks, and his first race around two turns.

"He's doing fantastic. I feel like I've got him pretty darn close" to ready, O'Neill said.

"Most horses need a few races to get back to 100 percent. I'm assuming he'll run good and get better with a few more races."

In the BC Juvenile, Stevie Wonderboy rallied from 12th to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Henny Hughes. The style of the victory was typical of Stevie Wonderboy's previous wins: a sustained rally over the last half-mile carried him to the front - and away from his rivals.

During the summer at Del Mar, Stevie Wonderboy won a six-furlong maiden race by four lengths and the Grade 2 Del Mar Futurity over seven furlongs by five lengths.

Even though Stevie Wonderboy has won at 1 1/16 miles, the one-mile San Rafael around two turns is something new for the colt. O'Neill said he has always expected Stevie Wonderboy to thrive at longer distances.

"From day one, we were shocked that he ran well over 5 1/2 furlongs," he said.

Whether Stevie Wonderboy's late kick can run down Brother Derek, or the improving Wanna Runner, will be the main focus for handicappers.

Brother Derek finished fourth in the BC Juvenile, 8 1/2 lengths behind Stevie Wonderboy. Before that he had won the Grade 2 Norfolk Stakes over 1 1/16 miles on this track on Oct. 2, and went on to a smart one-length win in the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 17.

Tactically, Brother Derek should be well placed in the San Rafael. He has the ability to take the lead, as he did in the Norfolk and the Hollywood Futurity, but is capable of stalking the pace, according to trainer Dan Hendricks.

Wanna Runner, trained by Bob Baffert, is expected to be in front.

Brother Derek's versatility could give the colt first jump on Stevie Wonderboy in the final half-mile, Hendricks said.

"He doesn't have our speed at all," Hendricks said. "I don't think it would help to try to keep up with us.

"I'm fit after a race four weeks ago," Hendricks said of Brother Derek's condition. "If someone wants to show speed, we don't have to do it."

Despite his two major stakes wins, Hendricks feels Brother Derek has been somewhat overlooked on the national scene. Brother Derek was not a finalist for the division's Eclipse Award. A win on Saturday would place Brother Derek at the top of many 3-year-old lists.

"It would be real nice to win it a week before the Eclipse Awards," he said. "I feel I have one of the best 3-year-olds in the country."

The field

San Rafael Stakes
Purse: $150,000; 1 mile; Grade 2

PPHORSEJOCKEYWT.ODDS
1Woody Be QuickC. Nakatani11620-1
2Brother DerekA. Solis1227-5
3M. J. PkayI. Enriquez11630-1
4Wanna RunnerV. Espinoza1166-1
5Stevie WonderboyG. Gomez1224-5
6Sailors SunsetJ. Court11620-1

* Odds by Michael Hammersly
* Television: Saturday, 6:16 p.m. Eastern, ESPN News

Road to the Derby

Key stakes races leading to the 132nd Kentucky Derby, 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs on May 6, 2006.

DATEEVENTTRKDISTANCETIMEFIRST 3 FINISHERS (with winner's Beyer Figure)
Jan. 1TROPICAL PARK DERBY (G3)Crc1 1/8 m T1:46.65Barbaro (97), Wise River, Lewis Michael
Jan. 7AVENTURA STAKESGP1 m1:37.75Doctor Decherd (85), Itsallboutthechase, My Golden Song
Jan. 7COUNT FLEET STAKESAqu1 m 70 yds.1:39.61Achilles of Troy (104), Extra Bend, Platinum Couple
Jan. 8SAN MIGUEL STAKESSA6 furlongs1:08.59Too Much Bling (100), Cause to Believe, Bound to Be MVP

DATEEVENTTRKDISTANCE
Jan. 14RISEN STAR STAKESLaD1 1/16m
Jan. 14SAN RAFAEL STAKES (G2)SA1 m
Jan. 28SUNSHINE MILLIONS DASHSA6 furlongs
Jan. 29EL CAMINO REAL DERBY (G3)BM1 1/16m
Feb. 4SHAM STAKES (G3)SA1 1/8 m
Feb. 4WEBN STAKESTP1 m
Feb. 4HOLY BULL STAKES (G3)GP1 1/8 m
Feb. 4MIRACLE WOOD STAKESLrl1 m
Feb. 4HUTCHESON STAKES (G2)GP7 1/2 fur.
Feb. 11TURF PARADISE DERBYTuP1 1/16 m
Feb. 11WHIRLAWAY STAKESAqu1 1/16 m
Feb. 12SAN VICENTE STAKES (G2)SA7 furlongs
Feb. 18FRED "CAPPY" CAPOSSELA S.Aqu6 furlongs
Feb. 18SAM F. DAVIS STAKESTam1 1/16 m
Feb. 20SOUTHWEST STAKESOP1 m
Feb. 26BORDERLAND STAKESSun1 1/16 m
March 4SANTA CATALINA STAKES (G2)SA1 1/16 m
March 4FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH S. (G2)GP1 1/8 m
March 4JOHN BATTAGLIA MEM. STAKES TP1 1/16 m
March 4SWALE STAKES (G2)GP7 furlongs
March 11CALIFORNIA DERBYGG1 1/16 m
March 18SAN FELIPE STAKES (G2)SA1 1/16 m
March 18TAMPA BAY DERBY (G3)Tam1 1/16 m
March 18GOTHAM STAKES (G3)Aqu1 1/16m
March 18REBEL STAKES (G3)OP1 1/16 m
March 25LANE'S END STAKES (G2)TP1 1/8 m
March 25RUSHAWAY STAKESTP1 1/16 m
March 25U.A.E. DERBY (G2)NAS1 1/4 m
March 25PRIVATE TERMS STAKESLrl1 m
April 1FLORIDA DERBY (G1)GP1 1/8 m
April 1WINSTAR DERBYSun1 1/8 m
April 8SANTA ANITA DERBY (G1)SA1 1/8 m
April 8ILLINOIS DERBY (G2)Haw1 1/8 m
April 8WOOD MEMORIAL (G1)Aqu1 1/8 m
April 15ARKANSAS DERBY (G2)OP1 1/8 m
April 15BLUE GRASS STAKES (G1)Kee1 1/8 m
April 22LEXINGTON STAKES (G2)Kee1 1/16 m
April 29WITHERS STAKES (G3) Aqu1 m
April 29DERBY TRIAL (G3)CD1 m