03/17/2004 12:00AM

WinStar to have California flavor


SUNLAND PARK, N.M. - Late nominations closed Monday for the $500,000 WinStar Derby, with 94 horses from around the country now eligible for the March 28 race.

A number of these horses can be divided into three categories: those who have run well but dropped out of the Kentucky Derby picture as distance limitations have been exposed; late bloomers who lack the seasoning to be ready for the Derby; and two or three local horses.

Sunland officials are expecting much of the field to come from California-based trainers. Doug O'Neill, who won the inaugural running of the 1 1/16-mile WinStar last year with Excessivepleasure, is expected to send two-time graded stakes winner Perfect Moon. Perfect Moon won the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship and the Grade 2 Best Pal last summer, but has a second and three thirds in five tries beyond 6 1/2 furlongs since. Bob Baffert is thought to be leaning toward sending Teton Forest, a Forestry colt who finished second in a one-mile entry-level allowance March 3 at Santa Anita in just his third start.

The Craig Dollase-trained Saint Afleet won the Sunshine Millions Dash on Jan. 24 before finishing fourth in the Grade 3 Baldwin on Feb. 28.

Mike Mitchell is expected to send Quintons Gold Rush, who prompted the pace four wide in the Grade 2 San Rafael on March 6 before weakening to finish fourth.

Mitchell could also send Stalking Tiger, who finished third in the Baldwin in his 3-year-old debut. A Cal-bred, Stalking Tiger won the $75,000 Haggin last June at Hollywood, then was given time off after running second in the $125,000 Graduation on July 30 at Del Mar.

Elliott Walden will send in Victory Light, a son of Victory Gallop, for WinStar Farm. Victory Light finished fifth at Gulfstream in his only start at 3. Sunland officials believe that Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen will also send horses for the race.