01/11/2006 12:00AM

Two-turn form Derek's trump card

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Trainer Dan Hendricks says he's hopeful that Brother Derek, shown winning the Hollywood Futurity, can turn the tables on Stevie Wonderboy in Saturday's San Rafael.

It's not often the West Coast's two highest-ranked contenders for the Kentucky Derby meet in a stakes race in January, but it's not often the West Coast has a crop as deep as it does this year.

Stevie Wonderboy, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, is a certainty to be named the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old of 2005 later this month, and he is the pro-tem favorite for the Derby. But Brother Derek has made significant strides since his lone meeting against Stevie Wonderboy, in the Breeders' Cup, which makes their match in Saturday's Grade 2, $150,000 San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita such a compelling early-season showdown.

Brother Derek was 8 1/2 lengths in arrears of Stevie Wonderboy in the Breeders' Cup. That, however, was around one turn. All of Stevie Wonderboy's races have been around one turn. Brother Derek, by contrast, is 2 for 2 around two turns, including a victory in last month's Hollywood Futurity. The San Rafael, at one mile, will be Stevie Wonderboy's first race around two turns.

"I'm hoping that makes a difference," Dan Hendricks, the trainer of Brother Derek, said Wednesday morning from his barn at Santa Anita. "I'm hoping Stevie Wonderboy is a one-turn horse. We know we're a legitimate two-turn horse. We just raced four weeks ago. He raced 11 weeks ago. You add up one and two and three and four, and you hope it adds up 10."

Based on the cold, hard numbers of Beyer Speed Figures, as well as esoteric observation, Brother Derek has steadily improved since his debut last May.

"Training-wise, he does whatever you want him to do," Hendricks said. "He's automatic. That's his biggest asset."

Brother Derek was a winner of his debut at Hollywood Park, then finished third in the I'm Smokin' Stakes at Del Mar after a poor start. In his first race around two turns, he tenaciously fought off all rivals to capture the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, thus earning a trip to New York for the Breeders' Cup.

Brother Derek was shockingly overlooked in the Juvenile because of the attention focused on better-fancied runners such as Stevie Wonderboy, First Samurai, and Henny Hughes. And though those horses beat him, Brother Derek outran his 56-1 odds, finishing fourth in the one-turn, 1 1/16-mile race.

"I thought he ran a good race considering that his style better suits a two-turn race," Hendricks said. "If he'd have run that race in most other Breeders' Cups, he probably would have won, but that was a very strong field. Considering it was a one-turn race, I was very happy. He showed he could run with anybody."

Brother Derek came back to California and seven weeks later won the Hollywood Futurity, defeating such well-regarded runners as Your Tent or Mine, Bob and John, and A.P. Warrior. He trained right along following that race, which convinced Hendricks to go in the San Rafael.

"It just came along at the right time timing-wise," Hendricks said. "We'll run here, take February off, and not run again until March. We approached this race with the attitude that we'll only run if he's perfect. We didn't have to run. We only wanted to run if he was doing super, which he is."

That level-headed thinking has served Hendricks well both on and off the track. Last May, after Brother Derek won first time out, he had some minor issues with his feet. Hendricks told owner Cecil Peacock that taking a conservative approach would be best, and Peacock said, "Do whatever is right for the horse."

"A lot of owners would have been anxious to run back, but he never second-guessed anything we did," Hendricks said. "It made a difference, because we had a fresh horse at the end of the year and going into this year."

Hendricks, 47, has carried on determinedly since an accident in July 2004 left him paralyzed from the waist down. In the 18 years he has trained since apprenticing under Richard Mandella, Hendricks has had several good stakes horses, such as Gray Slewpy, Reba's Gold, and Smooth Player, but Brother Derek might be the best of them all. He could give Hendricks a legitimate shot in the major 3-year-old stakes this spring, including the Kentucky Derby.

"I'm just taking antibiotics, trying not to get Derby fever," Hendricks said. "Overall, this is a great 3-year-old crop. Stevie Wonderboy, Henny Hughes, First Samurai, Private Vow. It's pretty deep. I'm just happy to be part of it. It's a lot of fun to play along with it."