09/01/2006 12:00AM

This time, Porto Santo won't be stopped


PHOENIX - Secretariat winner Showing Up and the Hall of Fame winner After Market may not be in it, but that doesn't mean there isn't quality galore in Sunday's Grade 2 Del Mar Derby, especially if Porto Santo is ready to deliver on the promise of his close calls in his first two U.S. outings.

A French-bred trained by Julio Canani, Porto Santo came from France with a glowing r?sum?, one that showed him a stakes winner and Group 1-placed at 2, a stakes winner and Group 1-competitive at 3. After a spring campaign, he came to the U.S. and made his first start in a division of the Oceanside at Del Mar July 19. He got the worst of the draw - post 8 in an eight-horse field - but that didn't sway the public from making him the 4-5 favorite. Actually, the public was right. Porto Santo was the best horse. Trouble was, he was slow into stride and then had to steady a crucial point in midstretch, just when hitting high gear. He lost by a head to the talented Obrigado.

Wheeled back in the Grade 2 La Jolla Aug. 12, he was again the favorite (6-5), again slow into stride, but again put in a powerful rally, only this time he ended up a nose shy of A. P. Warrior.

Porto Santo must again face Obrigado, who is trained by Neil Drysdale. Union Avenue ships in for Bill Mott off a victory in the Grade 2 American Derby on the turf at Arlington. The most interesting entrant may be Point Determined. A Bob Baffert trainee, Point Determined took a shot at the Kentucky Derby, to no avail, but has since run super twice at Hollywood, winning the Grade 3 Affirmed and then finishing second in the Grade 2 Swaps. He's been working in smashing fashion for what will be his turf debut.

Still, Sunday's Del Mar Derby looks like it belongs to Porto Santo. He gets a bit more ground, and with two races under his belt, it's time for him to put his stamp on this division out West.

Where's the love for Lava Man?

It perplexes me that some of the same people who denigrate Lava Man for beating the same horses are calling Bernardini a super horse - even though he has been doing the same thing. At the highest level you are almost always beating the same horses, unless you're a great traveler like Cigar or Affirmed or John Henry. You can't knock a horse for who lines up against them. That's like knocking the winner of the Super Bowl for beating who they're supposed to beat.

Remember, Lava Man beat the one-two finishers of the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap. He beat Perfect Drift, a legitimate top-class horse who has plied his trade all over the country. He beat Magnum, who earlier this year shipped to the south and was second in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap and won the Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap. Invasor hasn't been criticized in the same way for his competition. He beat Flower Alley, but he also beat Wanderin Boy, West Virginia, Andromeda's Hero, and Wild Desert - a list no more impressive than the those vanquished by Lava Man.

And that's not to knock Bernardini or Invasor - in fact, it's just the opposite. They're beating who they're supposed to beat. It just seems to me Lava Man isn't getting anything close to the respect he deserves, probably because he's doing it in Southern California. To me, so far, he's the Horse of the Year, though of course all that hinges on what happens in the BC Classic with Bernardini and Invasor.

Make no mistake, what Lava Man has accomplished out West is nothing short of spectacular. He has won four Grade 1 races - the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic on dirt, and the Charles Whittingham on turf. If some horse back East were to win the Suburban, Whitney, and Jockey Club Gold Cup - and the Man o' War on the turf - they would be calling him Pegasus.

Aragorn America's best

Lost in all the Bernardini hubbub was another monstrous performance by Aragorn to win the Grade 2 Del Mar BC Mile Handicap last Saturday. The race may have been a mile, but Aragorn really only ran about three furlongs. He bided his time, saved ground, and blasted through a hole when the opportunity presented itself, and won geared down.

The win came on the heels of victories in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile and Grade 1 Eddie Read. He's no doubt America's best hope at keeping the BC Mile trophy here in the States. Trouble is, no matter who shows up from Europe - and candidates include Iffraaj, Librettist, Court Masterpiece, Araafa, George Washington, and Ad Valorem - they are going to be awfully, awfully tough.