01/20/2004 12:00AM

Belichick primed to improve

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - After finishing a good third behind odds-on favorite Buju on opening day, Belichick would have been among the favorites for Thursday's $34,000 allowance feature at Gulfstream Park regardless of the outcome of Sunday's AFC championship game.

But now that his namesake, coach Bill Belichick, has led the New England Patriots to their second Super Bowl appearance in the last three years, it is likely Belichick the horse will receive a little additional attention in Thursday's main event.

is owned in partnership by trainer Bill Perry and John Gallo, who resides near the Patriots' stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

"John loves the Pats and was the one who decided to name the horse after coach Belichick," said Perry.

Belichick has started only four times, winning his debut impressively last summer at Monmouth Park before turning in a couple of disappointing efforts to close out the 2003 season. A son of the 1997 Donn Handicap winner, Formal Gold, Belichick returned from an 11-week layoff on opening day. He contested the pace and proved no match for Buju, who completed six furlongs in an eye-catching 1:08.95.

"His last race was a big improvement over his previous pair, and we seem to have him going forward in the right direction now," said Perry, who also trained Formal Gold. "I'd expect he will benefit from that last start and should run pretty well on Thursday."

Vernon Bush will again be aboard Belichick in the seven-furlong race.

Bahama John, who outfinished Belichick by a half-length for second when the pair met opening day, is among the other key contenders in the race, along with Fervid, Wild Force, and Quick American.

was making only his third career start, and he improved his Beyer Speed Figure by more than 20 points over his 3-year-old finale, a victory in a maiden race at Aqueduct.

Fervid is another lightly raced but improved 4-year-old. Trained by Carl Nafzger, Fervid posted a Beyer Figure of 95 when he rallied to a one-length victory going a mile at Churchill Downs on Oct. 31, and now turns back to a sprint in his 2004 bow. His Churchill performance was flattered after the second- and third-place finishers, Shadow Hawk and Ba Ba Boom, each returned to win his next start.

Wild Force donned blinkers to post a half-length maiden victory in his 3-year-old finale at Calder, withstanding a hard drive to defeat Rich as Croesus. The effort earned him a Beyer Figure of 90, second highest of the 10 horses in this field.