Merv Griffin's Stevie Wonderboy, this year's early Kentucky Derby (gr. I) favorite, begins the Triple Crown trail Saturday when meeting Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) champion Brother Derek and four other 3-year-olds in Santa Anita's $150,000 San Rafael Stakes (gr. II).
The chestnut colt faces no easy assignment in his first race since rallying from far back to win the $1.5 million Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) by 1 ¼ lengths on Oct. 29. That race was at 1 1/16 miles, but around a single turn over Belmont Park's expansive layout.
The one-mile San Rafael is the first test around two turns for Stevie Wonderboy, while Brother Derek is a two-time stakes winner around two turns. The latter most recently won the Hollywood Futurity by one length over Your Tent Or Mine on Dec. 17 while covering 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.
Rain is a distinct possiblity in Southern California Saturday, but O'Neill says it won't be a factor on whether or not his colt runs.
Brother Derek chased Stevie Wonderboy when fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but has route experience and racing sharpness on his side. The two are presently considered the West Coast's two leading Kentucky Derby candidates. Santa Anita oddsmaker Jeff Tufts has established Stevie Wonderboy as the early 4-5 favorite for Saturday's meeting with Brother Derek listed at 8-5.
Stevie Wonderboy is the San Rafael's odds-on favorite despite his 2 ½ months on the sideline. "He's doing fantastic," said O'Neill. "In our mind, he's ready to win. Is this the end goal? No. We definitely want to win this and we think he's ready to win, but the first Saturday in May is our long-term target, that's for sure."
Following the San Rafael, trainer Doug O'Neill has mapped out two other races at Santa Anita on Stevie Wonderboy's tentative schedule leading up to the May 6 Kentucky Derby: the $200,000 Santa Catalina Stakes (gr. II) at 1 1/16 miles, and the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) at 1 1/8 miles on April 8.
The Kentucky-bred son of Stephen Got Even
has earned $1,028, 940 from three wins in five starts for The Merv Griffin Ranch Co. O'Neill's brother, Dennis, purchased him on behalf of Griffin, for $100,000 at the Fasig Tipton Sale in Florida 11 months ago. After running second and third, respectively, Stevie Wonderboy won his last three starts by a combined 10 ¼ lengths. Garrett Gomez has ridden by colt in each of his races.
Brother Derek has earned $502,080 from his three victories in five starts. The California-bred son of Benchmark, trained by Dan Hendricks, was purchased by Cecil Peacock for $275,000 at last year's Barretts March Sale in Pomona. In addition to the Hollywood Futurity, he won Oak Tree's Norfolk Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita in October for his other two-turn victory.
Hendricks said rain could delay Brother Derek's sophomore debut.
"The weather could definitely affect us," he said. "I don't want to run on an 'off' track or a hard, sealed track. There's no reason to this early in the year. There's no reason to take a chance, that's all. I might look at the El Camino (Real Derby at Bay Meadows on Jan. 29) or I might just wait till February. I'm not pressed to run him. He doesn't need to run. He's fresh and he's a 3-year-old at the beginning of the year, and it's a long year."
Trainer Bob Baffert sends out Wanna Runner, 4-1 on the morning line with Victor Espinoza aboard. The son of El Corredor
has won two straight for owner Mike Pegram.
The San Rafael is part of a stakes doubleheader that includes the $200,000 San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes (gr. II) for 4-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles. The day's festivities include the unveiling of a bust in the likeness of Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, that will join those of Bill Shoemaker, Johnny Longden and Laffit Pincay Jr. in Santa Anita's East Paddock Garden.$150,000 San Rafael Stakes (gr. II, Race 6, 3:08 p.m.), 3-year-olds, 1 mile
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey, ML Odds
1. Woody Be Quick (KY), 116, Corey S. Nakatani, 30/1
2. Brother Derek (CA), 122, Alex O. Solis, 8/5
3. M. J. Pkay (CA), 116, Isaias D. Enriquez, 30/1
4. Wanna Runner (ON), 116, Victor Espinoza, 4/1
5. Stevie Wonderboy (KY), 122, Garrett K. Gomez, 4/5
6. Sailors Sunset (KY), 116, Jon K. Court, 15/1