03/28/2002 1:00AM

Takin It Deep is bigger and better at 4


ALBANY, Calif. - College coaches like to say the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.

Trainer Gil Matos knows what they mean. The best thing to happen to Takin It Deep, who won the California Derby for Matos last spring, was turning 4.

"He's muscled up and matured bodywise and mindwise," Matos said of the Cal-bred Takin It Deep, who has earned $243,112 with five victories in 17 starts. "Turning 4 didn't hurt him at all,"

Takin It Deep is the best colt Matos has ever trained, and he could give Matos his first graded stakes victory Saturday in the $100,000, Grade 3 Berkeley Handicap at Golden Gate Fields.

Matos had never won a $100,000 race before winning the $200,000 California Derby last April 14 at Bay Meadows.

The victory was impressive: Takin It Deep rallied from last after the first half-mile to win by one-half length. The win prompted Matos to bring the colt back two weeks later in the $250,000 Snow Chief for Cal-breds at Hollywood Park.

"I made a mistake. I shouldn't have taken him down south," Matos said. "Even though he finished sixth [beaten 3 1/4 lengths], he ran his eyes out."

Matos questions his decision to race at Hollywood because Takin It Deep, a May foal, was running before his third birthday.

"He was a May foal. Some of that was bothering him," Matos said. "In the last 90 days, he's been getting bigger and stronger."

Matos said he noticed a difference in Takin It Deep's first start of 2002, even though he finished a troubled fifth.

"That was the first race that showed me he wanted to be a different horse as a 4-year-old," Matos said.

In his last start he came from last to win a 1 1/16-mile allowance race over several of Saturday's rivals.

"The thing that bothers me is that it's a flat mile, and he gets rolling late," Matos said.

But Saturday's race figures to have a hot pace with I'madrifter, Bring The Heat, Boss Ego, Ironman Dehere, and even Irisheyesareflying and Palmeiro in the field.

Jockey Russell Baze, who will ride Takin It Deep again after guiding him to a victory in his last start, isn't as concerned about the slightly shorter distance.

"The shorter distance makes it more likely we'll get a hot pace, and that will help," Baze said.

Matos said that after looking at the speedy field, "If we're going to run a flat mile, I hope this is the one to go in."

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