05/11/2006 12:00AM

Wanna Runner solid favorite

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GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Wanna Runner will attempt to run the tables on the Southwest derby circuit before he heads out of the country for next month's Queen's Plate in Canada. The winner of the $600,000 WinStar Derby at Sunland Park on April 1, he is returning to this region from his California base on Saturday for the Grade 3, $300,000 .

Wanna Runner will start as a solid favorite in the Lone Star Derby on the strength of his WinStar victory and his third-place finish to Brother Derek in the Grade 2 San Rafael at Santa Anita.

Wanna Runner also has high-percentage connections in Mike Pegram and trainer Bob Baffert, who last month teamed to win the Grade 3, $300,000 Texas Mile here with Preachinatthebar. Adding to Wanna Runner's appeal is his speed, which should place him closer to the pace than his chief rivals, Red Raymond and Admiral's Arch.

Those three horses are the only stakes winners in the Lone Star Derby, a 1 1/16-mile race. The field is rounded out by Mr. Pursuit, Wait in Line, and Rain on Monday.

Wanna Runner sat just off the pace through six furlongs in 1:10 in the WinStar, then jetted home to a 4 3/4-length score under Victor Espinoza, who has the return call Saturday.

"I thought he ran great," said Espinoza. "Every time I've ridden him, he's always tried hard. He likes to win."

Wanna Runner is also versatile. "He can go to the front or he can come from behind," said Espinoza. "That's what I like about him."

Red Raymond had a productive meet at Oaklawn, where he closed for third in the $250,000 Southwest and second in the Grade 3, $300,000 Rebel under Luis Quinonez. In his last start, Red Raymond finished 10th in the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby.

"Luis said he wasn't handling the track too well," said Bob Holthus, who trains the Kentucky-based Red Raymond. "But he has come up here and worked good twice, and we feel he's really sitting on a good effort."

Admiral's Arch rallied from more than eight lengths back to win the $100,000 Northern Spur at Oaklawn on the Arkansas Derby undercard April 15.

"I don't think he'll be as far back as he was," said his trainer, Steve Asmussen. "He got shuffled way back and was in behind horses down the back side. He's definitely got more pace than he showed that day."