02/21/2003 12:00AM

'Thunder' takes Derby detour

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Apalachian Thunder will forsake the Derby chase for now, and focus instead on the realistic goal of becoming a graded stakes winner in a $100,000 sprint race. Rather than join the bounty of front-runners pointing for the Grade 2, one-mile San Rafael Stakes next weekend, Apalachian Thunder instead will cut back to one turn and return to grass in the Grade 3 Baldwin Stakes on Sunday at Santa Anita.

Fourteen 3-year-olds entered the about 6 1/2-furlong turf race, and Apalachian Thunder is the clear favorite. His main rivals include graded-stakes-winning sprinter Roll Hennessy Roll, and stakes winners Buddy Gil, Only the Best, and Excessive Barb. Longshots include Bossanova and European imports Love is Blind and Steelaninch.

The Baldwin represents a change in plans for Apalachian Thunder, and the move makes sense. "There's a lot of speed in the San Rafael, and he's run well on grass," trainer Bob Baffert explained, adding "we're trying to win a stakes and make some money, not dream."

Owned and bred by Donald Dizney, Apalachian Thunder has won 2 races and $97,840 from 8 starts. The running style of his recent route victory - fast early and slow late - suggests he might be better suited to sprint races anyway.

Two previous turf starts by Apalachian Thunder produced a maiden win and a sixth-place finish in a Grade 3 stakes, after which he was transferred from trainer Howard Zucker to Bob Baffert. Though Apalachian Thunder defeated Atswhatimtalknbout last time going two turns, the probable San Rafael field already is loaded with speed, including front-runners Omega Code and Our Bobby V. To win the Baldwin, Apalachian Thunder must rate behind the abundant pace, then put away another speed horse, Roll Hennessy Roll.

Trained by Rafael Becerra, Roll Hennessy Roll scored an impressive win Nov. 23 in the seven-furlong, Grade 3 Hollywood Prevue at Hollywood Park. Off that race, Becerra and owner Stan Fulton took a shot and tried him against Toccet and Kafwain in the Hollywood Futurity. Roll Hennessy Roll set the pace to near midstretch in that 1 1/16-mile race, then tired.

"He laid his body down pretty good," Becerra said. The Futurity revealed distance limitations for Roll Hennessy Roll, according to Becerra, who said, "He's probably best at a mile or under."

Roll Hennessy Roll will be making his first start on grass, but has shown a liking for the surface in morning works.

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