02/01/2007 1:00AM

Strub a proving ground for Awesome Gem


ARCADIA, Calif. - Awesome Gem made a meteoric rise from maiden winner in September to a Grade 2 stakes winner in January, and on Saturday he will be tested in the $300,000 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita.

Awesome Gem has won 3 of his last 4 starts, a streak that includes the Grade 2 San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes over 1 1/16 miles on Jan. 13. While the Strub is also a Grade 2, the race is run over 1o1/8 miles, which will equal the longest race of Awesome Gem's seven-race career.

"I like the added distance for him," trainer Craig Dollase said. "He did run a great race last time and I hope he can keep that going. He's had three weeks between races, which should help."

Should he run well in the Strub, Awesome Gem will be considered for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 3, Dollase said.

First, he must beat a small group in the Strub that will include the second- and third-place finishers of the San Fernando - Midnight Lute and Brother Derek, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby last April.

"If he can run right back to the last race, he should be tough," Dollase said. "I'm hoping there is a little pace in the race, and with Brother Derek in there it should be."

The Strub Stakes is the top race on an 10-race program that includes the $100,000 Sham Stakes for 3-year-olds and the $75,000 Thunder Road Handicap on turf.

The Strub Stakes is an opportunity for Brother Derek to break a seven-race losing streak, dating back to the Santa Anita Derby. The streak includes fourth-place finishes in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and a fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November.

In the San Fernando, Brother Derek raced wide for much of the race, and was beaten 1 1/4 lengths.

"He fought for a long way and gave us a good try," said jockey Alex Solis. "The way he feels right now, he feels like he's coming to himself. The indications he's given me right now, he's going to give a good effort."

Trainer Dan Hendricks describes Brother Derek as "full of himself." The 4-year-old is the only millionaire in the Strub field and has the ability take the early lead. Brother Derek has used that style to win four graded stakes in his career, which includes 6 wins in 15 starts and earnings of $1,557,458.

"I think he'll be forwardly placed without trying," Hendricks said. "I expect him to run a better race. The pace should be reasonable."

Brother Derek could be joined on the lead by the outsider Objective. Trained by Laura Wohlers, Objective set the pace in the San Fernando and faded to finish eighth in a field of 11. Objective won the Hill Rise Stakes here in January 2006.

Midnight Lute is seeking his first stakes win around two turns, which he has tried only once, in the San Fernando. Trained by Bob Baffert, Midnight Lute was ridden by Victor Espinoza in the San Fernando and was beaten a nose by a fast-closing Awesome Gem.

Baffert is not concerned about the distance, noting, "He went seven wide going a mile and a sixteenth" in the San Fernando.

"I think Victor knows him better now," Baffert said.

The San Fernando was Midnight Lute's seventh start. He won the seven-furlong Perryville Stakes at Keeneland last October and was a troubled third in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes over the same distance here.

Baffert envisions Midnight Lute taking his customary position just off the pace.

"He's still learning how to run," Baffert said. "If you stick to your style, you get the most out of your horse."

Fairbanks is entered but may start in Sunday's San Antonio Handicap. Fairbanks has won allowance races at Saratoga and Gulfstream Park in the last seven months. He has the ability to race near the front.P