01/12/2007 1:00AM

Troubled Malibu trio back in San Fernando

Alex Evers/Horsephotos
Brother Derek encountered traffic in the stretch of the Malibu and finished seventh.

ARCADIA, Calif. - In one way or another, the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on Dec. 26 was a mess for Arson Squad, Brother Derek, and Midnight Lute. Trouble at the start for Arson Squad and Midnight Lute and traffic in the stretch for Brother Derek kept them from showing their best.

The three return in Saturday's $200,000 San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes over 1 1/16 miles. Even though all three have run brilliant races in the past, their collective presence has not scared off any rivals.

The Grade 2 San Fernando has drawn 12 entrants as a key prep to the $300,000 Strub Stakes on Feb. 3.

"I thought there would be seven," said trainer Dan Hendricks, who will start the 2006 Santa Anita Derby winner, Brother Derek.

The San Fernando is the eighth race on a nine-race program that includes the $150,000 San Rafael Stakes for 3-year-olds, the third race.

Brother Derek is winless in six starts since the Santa Anita Derby, a span that includes fourth-place finishes in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and a fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

In the Malibu, Brother Derek finished seventh after encountering trouble through the final furlong.

"It's hard to say" where he would have finished, Hendricks said. "He had trouble in the race. He was down inside and he didn't like it. I think he'll run a big race on Saturday."

Despite racing in several Grade 1 stakes in the last year, Brother Derek may not be favored in the San Fernando. That role is likely to go to Midnight Lute, who finished third in the Malibu Stakes in his first start since winning the Grade 3 Perryville Stakes over seven furlongs at Keeneland in October.

A winner of 3 of 5 starts, Midnight Lute will make his first start around two turns in the San Fernando, a proposition that does not concern trainer Bob Baffert.

"This will set him up for the next race," Baffert said in reference to the Strub. "He's a good horse. I'm pretty excited about it."

In the Malibu, Midnight Lute was eighth early and rallied to finish two lengths behind race winner Latent Heat. "He hopped out" of the gate, Baffert said. "He missed the break and made a big run. He should have won it. You can't give those horses a head start."

Trainer Bruce Headley was deflated when he saw Arson Squad's start in the Malibu. Arson Squad was bumped early, dropped back to last in the field of 12, and was wide on the turn before finishing eighth.

"You can't be that far back if you're struggling for your feet in the first four or five strides," Headley said.

The winner of the Grade 2 Swaps Breeders' Cup Stakes over 1 1/8 miles at Hollywood Park last July, and three other races, Arson Squad is well suited to the San Fernando distance.

Headley does not fear a large field.

"I don't have any problems with that unless bad Lady Luck shows up," Headley said. "My horse is ready to run."

While those horses are well established, the San Fernando also includes several up-and-coming runners and one import from France.

Awesome Gem, second in the Sir Beaufort Stakes on turf on Dec. 26, and Spring at Last, the runner-up in the Malibu Stakes, are capable of pulling an upset. Awesome Gem won two routes on this track during the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting in the fall.

Halo Steven, the winner of four stakes in western Canada last year, returns to Southern California. He was racing in starter allowance races when he left this circuit last April.

Sensational Score, the winner of the Pomona Derby at Fairplex Park in September, will attempt to end a two-race losing streak.

The race will be the U.S. debut of Hello Sunday, a group stakes winner in France last August. He is making his first start for trainer Bobby Frankel, and has drawn the outside post.