02/20/2003 1:00AM

Baffert: Follow the money

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NEW ORLEANS - The plane that transports Kafwain to Fair Grounds for the March 9 Louisiana Derby also will carry Atlantic Ocean, who will run the day before in the $350,000 Fair Grounds Oaks.

Baffert confirmed Thursday his plans to ship the two 3-year-olds to Fair Grounds. As to why he chose the Louisiana Derby over the March 16 San Felipe Stakes, Baffert said, "Well, do the math. They're both a mile and a sixteenth. The [Louisiana Derby] is $750,000 and the [San Felipe] here is $250,000."

Kafwain is one of the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby, and closed at odds of 12-1 in the first pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Kafwain has won two graded stakes, was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and comes off an exceptionally fast win in the seven-furlong San Vicente on Feb. 1 at Santa Anita.

"Anytime you go to the Fair Grounds it's tough," Baffert said. "But this horse ships well, and as long as he's training well, we're coming."

No one is denying the strength of Kafwain's win in the San Vicente, but questions still are being asked about his ability to perform at his top level over a distance of ground. Kafwain is by Cherokee Run, a relatively young stallion who is known more as a sire of sprinters. But in three two-turn races, Kafwain has finished first or second, though he was placed fourth after losing by a head to Toccet in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity.

"You're always going to hear opinions out there, people knocking good horses," Baffert said. "I think he ran pretty good at a mile and an eighth in the Breeders' Cup. I don't worry about that. I know he's a good horse, and that's all that matters."

Atlantic Ocean caused a stir when she brought $1.9 million at last year's Barretts 2-year-old sale, but lost her first two races as the heavy favorite. But Atlantic Ocean began coming around when she stretched out to two turns, and she will come into the Fair Grounds Oaks on a three-race win streak.

"She's getting better and stronger," Baffert said. "Distance isn't a problem with her. I think she's justified her purchase price. The goal with her is the Kentucky Oaks."

Right now, there are no other well-known fillies expected to ship in for the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks. Lady Tak and Belle of Perintown are the top local hopes.

Speed Hunter joins Taylor's Special field

Add Speed Hunter to the list of probable starters in Sunday's $75,000 Taylor's Special Handicap. Elliott Walden said Thursday that Speed Hunter will ship from his Florida base for the six-furlong race.

Speed Hunter has won 4 of 10 starts, and Walden has flip-flopped the colt between sprints and routes. But after Speed Hunter's 15-length loss last month at Gulfstream in the 1 1/16-mile Hal's Hope, Walden said he's sticking to one-turn races. "I think I've figured it out now," he said.

Speed Hunter has won his last three sprints, allowance races at Gulfstream, Saratoga, and Churchill. He won in a good field in the Churchill race, rating just behind the leaders and finishing with a strong kick.

"He just comes home better going short," said Walden. "It looks like a spot where I'll be one of the first two or three choices, so we'll take a shot."

Besides Speed Hunter, others expected for the Taylor's Special are Aloha Bold, Doctor Mike, G.W.'s Deputy, Gracie's Dancer, Kazoo, and Mountain General. Kazoo and Mountain General both have won sprint stakes at the meet.

Mystery Giver goes half in 49

Mystery Giver, an easy winner of the Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup in his last start, put in a good work here Thursday, breezing a half-mile in 49 seconds. Mystery Giver's connections toyed with sending him to Sam Houston for the Connally Breeders' Cup last weekend, but decided to pass on the race.

"There's one race, and that's all we have on our mind," said trainer Richie Scherer.

That race is the Grade 2 Explosive Bid on March 22, and the ease with which Mystery Giver won his last start suggests he will be a contender regardless of who ships in for the race. When he runs, Mystery Giver will have had close to two months between starts, so his works in the interim are important.

"He went excellent today," Scherer said. "It was a maintenance work, and [the rider] just sat on him for a half-mile."