03/01/2006 12:00AM

Test of two turns for First Samurai

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Gary I. Rothstein/EQUI-PHOTOS
Sprinting in his 2006 debut, First Samurai (left) was second to Keyed Entry in the Hutcheson. Now First Samurai will have his first two-turn race in Saturday's Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream.

The ability of a horse to successfully stretch out around two turns is a factor that has intrigued handicappers and made trainers anxious for decades. The test becomes particularly magnified in the spring, when 3-year-olds take that intermediate step toward proving whether they are worthy of going to the Kentucky Derby.

Brother Derek, the current favorite for the Derby on the line set by Daily Racing Form national handicapper Mike Watchmaker, already has cleared that hurdle - three times. On Saturday, he will attempt to retain his position when he faces eight others in the Grade 2, $200,000 Santa Catalina Stakes at 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita.

At Gulfstream Park on Saturday, First Samurai, the co-second choice on Watchmaker's line, will take his first step into the great unknown. For the first time in his career, he will attempt to go two turns when he stretches out to 1 1/8 miles in the Grade 2, $300,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes.

Handicappers and trainers can ponder pedigrees, divine Dosage, and evaluate the subtleties of a horse's stride, hoping to glean whether a horse can handle two turns, let alone the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby. But, according to trainers like Frank Brothers and Bob Baffert, no one really knows until the race is run.

"The proof is always in the pudding," Brothers, the trainer of First Samurai, said the other day on a national teleconference. "He's got a great mind, an unusually good mind for a young horse. He'll relax. He's not a run-off. If he improves from a 2-year-old to a 3-year-old, he's got a chance. There's a little gray area there, whether he can run that far, mentally and physically."

First Samurai was one of the elite 2-year-olds of last year, when he won the Champagne Stakes and was third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. With the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park last year, the race was run around one turn, which is why Brothers never put First Samurai around two turns last year. After a freshening, First Samurai finished second in a sprint prep in a wickedly fast Hutcheson Stakes last month at Gulfstream.

"We chose that road to the Breeders' Cup because it was around one turn," Brothers said. "There was no reason to try anything else."

In the Hutcheson, he said, "I thought he did everything right other than win. I was happy with his race off the bench."

First Samurai was one of the most physically advanced of his brethren last year. "He's bigger," Brothers said. "He's always been a good-sized colt. Hopefully he can go a mile and a quarter if he keeps buying his ticket."

Brother Derek is unbeaten in three starts around two turns. He was fourth in the Breeders' Cup, 5 1/4 lengths behind First Samurai. Since then, though, he has won a pair of two-turn races, the Hollywood Futurity and the San Rafael Stakes. And since the San Rafael on Jan. 14, Brother Derek has continued to train strongly, with bullet drills on Feb. 12 and Feb. 23.

"He's matured and is doing things easier now," said Dan Hendricks, who trains Brother Derek.

Baffert will challenge Brother Derek with Wanna Runner, who was third to Brother Derek in the San Rafael and then was fifth in the El Camino Real Derby. He has no illusions about the task this weekend. Baffert, though, has higher hopes for the likes of Bob and John and Point Determined, who already have proven their mettle around two turns.

"You get an idea as to whether they can stretch out, but you don't really know until they do it," said Baffert, who has won the Derby three times, twice with horses he trained from the beginning as 2-year-olds. "They either can or they can't. You can't train it into them.

"There's two reasons they won't stretch out. Horses are born with a certain lung capacity. They won't do it because of their lungs, or something's hurting them. The other thing is, horses are born with a certain style, and sometimes it takes awhile to figure it out."

Baffert first went to the Derby with Cavonnier, who lost a heartbreaker in 1996.

"I didn't think he was a Derby horse until he won the Santa Anita Derby," Baffert said. "He and War Emblem, they were crying out for more distance. Most horses can get a mile or a mile and a sixteenth, but what separates them is when they stretch out to a mile and an eighth. Until they go a mile and an eighth, you don't really know what you've got."

Baffert won the Derby with War Emblem, and before that with Silver Charm and Real Quiet.

"Silver Charm had the ideal running style," Baffert said. "You could put him on the lead, or take back. He was smart and intelligent, a push-button horse to ride."

In other Derby developments:

* Nine horses were entered in the Santa Catalina. Brother Derek was made the 6-5 favorite on the line set by Santa Anita's Jeff Tufts. Latent Heat, a recent maiden winner at Santa Anita, is the second choice at 5-2. Brother Derek drew post 7 and will carry top weight of 122 pounds, seven more than Latent Heat.

* In addition to First Samurai, five other members of the top 25 of Derby Watch * Corinthian, Flashy Bull, Great Point, Itsallboutthechase, and My Golden Song - are expected to be entered on Thursday for Saturday's Fountain of Youth.

* Also at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, Noonmark is expected to head the field in the Grade 2, $150,000 Swale Stakes at seven furlongs. Others expected for that race include Beacon Shine and In Summation.

* The other 3-year-old race of note this weekend is the $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park. The 1 1/16-mile race is a prep for the Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End Stakes on March 25. Go Bucky Go, a recent allowance winner at Gulfstream, and Warrior Within, winner of Turfway's WEBN Frog Stakes, are expected to head the Battaglia.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee and Mike Welsch