03/22/2004 12:00AM

Top trio hits road in quest of riches and, maybe, Derby

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ALBANY, Calif. - Northern California's three top horses head east from Golden Gate Fields this week.

Ema Bovary, the best horse on the grounds, leaves Thursday for Kentucky in preparation for the seven-furlong $175,000 Vinery Madison at Keeneland on April 7.

The El Camino Real Derby winner, Kilgowan, and the fourth-place finisher, O.K. Mikie, leave Saturday for Illinois and a date in the $500,000 Grade 2 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne on April 3.

Ema Bovary's trainer, Larry Ross, originally planned to run her in the Grade 2, $150,000 Distaff Breeders' Cup Handicap at Aqueduct on Saturday, but changed his plans.

"I thought the race in New York might come up easy, but Randaroo and Storm Flag Flying look like they'll be running there," he said.

"I guess the logic is, why go against horses like that for less money. Lady Tak and Harmony Lodge are supposed to run in the Keeneland race, and they're very tough. But at least we'd be running for the full purse there. Ema isn't nominated to the Breeders' Cup."

A 5-year-old Chilean-bred mare, Ema Bovary has won eight straight races, one on a disqualification, and turned in her best effort in her last start, when she broke the stakes record in winning the Grade 3 Las Flores at 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita.

"She's going good. Everything is perfect," Ross said.

The Grade 1 Humana Distaff, a seven-furlong race at Churchill Downs, would be next for Ema Bovary if she runs well at Keeneland.

Trainer Lonnie Arterburn has made Kilgowan a late nominee to the Triple Crown. Arterburn says in retrospect he should have nominated Kilgowan in January.

"I don't even know the other horses' names that are considering the Derby," Arterburn said. "I think the field will be a big field. I'm not rooting for or against anyone else. I just worry about my colt."

As Arterburn and O.K. Mikie's trainer, Jerry McArthur, weighed their options, the Illinois Derby made more sense than the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

The Illinois Derby is graded, thus the earnings will count in case there are an overflow of horses entered for the Kentucky Derby. And the competition should be easier than that of the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

"I think he'd have to really run a great race to think about Kentucky, and we'd legitimately be a longshot still," Arterburn said.

For McArthur and owner Charles Lo, a meter reader for Pacific Gas and Electric, O.K. Mikie, a $25,000 claim, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"It's hard to believe we're even doing it," McArthur said. "I still can't believe it. I told Charles he better enjoy it. The odds are so incredible."

O.K. Mikie has been nominated to the $250,000 Snow Chief for California-breds at Hollywood Park on April 24, but McArthur knows he might as well enjoy the dream for now.

"To go to the Derby, we have to win [the Illinois Derby]," he said.

The decision to go to Illinois was more method than madness.

"It's probably an easier spot than to meet the big boys in the Grade 1 at Santa Anita," McArthur said of the Santa Anita Derby. "He should like the track and the long stretch. He's not much to look at, but he runs his race every time. The more I thought about it, I thought we needed to go there. Everything is more positive than negative."

The El Camino Real produced a starter for the Kentucky Derby last year. Ten Most Wanted finished third in the El Camino then went on to win the Illinois Derby and finish ninth at 6-1 in the Kentucky Derby.

Irish Ides involved in carryover

Stakes winner Irish Ides, last in her 3-year-old debut after a seven-month layoff, heads a field of five 3-year-old fillies in Wednesday's feature at Golden Gate Fields, a $32,000 claimer at six furlongs. It will be the second race in the pick six, which has a $50,402 carryover.

Irish Ides won her first two starts as a 2-year-old, including the Solano County Juvenile Fillies. She drew the outside for Wednesday and should have a contentious pace to sit behind as Striking Cobra, Gracious Girl, Woven Dream, and Highly Arrogant have all shown speed in the past.