03/12/2004 1:00AM

Action This Day brings it on

Breeders' Cup Juvenile champ Action This Day gallops at Santa Anita under exercise rider Cheryl Brown.

ARCADIA, Calif. - "It is time to start getting serious," trainer Richard Mandella said, which does not assume Action This Day will win the Grade 2 on Sunday. But it already is the middle of March. Action This Day and 10 other Santa Anita 3-year-olds must prove they belong on the Derby trail.

"All the b.s. stops right now, it's time to start marching," trainer Bob Baffert declared, hoping that his two horses - front-runner Odds On or Preachinatthebar - give Action This Day a battle in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe.

Yet the horse to beat is lightly raced St Averil, whose wide-trip win in the Grade 2 Santa Catalina on Jan. 17 was fast, and subsequently validated when two who finished behind him returned to win stakes.

The $250,000 San Felipe is the final prep for the Santa Anita Derby on April 3, and goes as race 5. Both the San Felipe and the Tampa Bay Derby will will be televised live on ESPN2. Post time for the San Felipe is 2:44 p.m. Pacific.

In race 8 at Santa Anita, Star Parade is expected to lead wire to wire in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap for older fillies and mares.

The quality of the San Felipe is dubious. Only Action This Day and St Averil have won graded stakes, and only St Averil has earned a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure. Other starters include allowance winners Last Minute Detail and Cheiron, both possibly best as late-running sprinters; the Doug O'Neill-trained Rush Into Heaven and Harvard Avenue; Toasted, a European comebacker; and overmatched Latitude and Boss Nass.

The San Felipe pace will be set by Odds On, a Silver Charm colt who won a four-horse allowance sprint in his Feb. 21 comeback.

"I'll probably put him on the lead and see how far he goes," said Baffert. "We're not sure if he can go two turns."

If Odds On does not win on the front end, Baffert hopes Preachinatthebar can win from behind. Each of his routes has been slightly better than the one before; he finished third in the Sham Stakes last out.

"I really like the way he's coming into it," Baffert said, adding that Preachinatthebar has filled out over winter. "I've been cruising on him, but it's time to unleash the beast."

With four routes, Preachinatthebar is dead fit, and a potential upsetter. He finished 3 1/2 lengths behind St Averil in the Santa Catalina.

St Averil established himself as a top colt in his second start, a runner-up finish to Lion Heart in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity. He followed with an impressive win in the Santa Catalina, after which trainer Rafael Becerra targeted the San Felipe. What will it take to win? "To run like he did last time," Becerra said. And he is right.

Despite a wide trip pressing a fast pace, St Averil extended his margin and earned a 102 Beyer, only three points below what usually is required to win the San Felipe. St Averil's win was validated when third-place Master David returned to win the Sham, and eighth-place Mambo Train returned to win the Turf Paradise Derby.

St Averil's tactical speed should allow him a pressing trip. When Odds On falters, St Averil figures to inherit the lead. At that point, he may have only one horse to worry about. That is Action This Day, who will try to prove his Breeders' Cup Juvenile win was not a fluke. Although his winning time in the Juvenile was .87 seconds slower than the Juvenile Fillies winning time and although he earned a mere 92 Beyer, Action This Day surpassed that figure in his first start of the year, earning a 98 while finishing fourth in the Sham.

Mandella expects the stretch-running Action This Day to improve Sunday. "He might have hung the last sixteenth [in the Sham], but I would expect him to make that run and keep running [Sunday]," he said.

While Action This Day has trained super since his comeback, Mandella has not had to force it out of him. "I haven't needed to, the [comeback] race did it for me," he said.

Action This Day's off-the-pace running style places him at a disadvantage Sunday.

"We could sharpen him up and make him quicker, but I'm not ready to experiment with him," Mandella said. "I like where we're at."

The field

San Felipe Stakes

Purse: $250,000; 1 1/16 miles; Grade 2

1LaditudeM. Smith11620-1
2CheironV. Espinoza1166-1
3Action This DayD. Flores1192-1
4Odds OnA. Solis1166-1
5Last Minute DetailC. Nakatani11612-1
6PreachinatthebarJ. Santiago1169-2
7Rush Into HeavenJ. Valdivia Jr11630-1
8St AverilT. Baze1225-2
9Harvard AvenueJ. Court11615-1
10ToastedG. Stevens11620-1
11Boss NassP. Atkinson11630-1

* Odds by Michael Hammersly
* Television: Sunday, 5 p.m., ESPN2