03/18/2002 1:00AM

Big hand for big winner


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Long after the last mutuel ticket had been cashed and the crowd had filed out after watching Harlan's Holiday dominate Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby, the hero of the hour finally left the testing barn and made his way back to his stall in Barn 16. The route home took him past the track kitchen area, located just across the street from trainer Ken McPeek's barn, where a gathering of grooms and hot walkers were celebrating the day's events.

"There must have been 50 or 60 people by the kitchen when Harlan's Holiday walked by," said veterinarian Tom Brokken, who was waiting to examine the Florida Derby winner back at his barn. "When Harlan's Holiday walked by they got up and gave him a standing ovation all the way back to the barn. And when they did you could just see the horse throw his chest out and start to strut. He knew they were cheering for him. It was one of the neatest things I've ever seen."

Certainly nobody deserved a standing O more than Harlan's Holiday, whose convincing victory in the Florida Derby established him as one of the top contenders for this year's Kentucky Derby.

Harlan's Holiday has thrived here this winter along with stablemates Repent and Take Charge Lady. All three will remain on the grounds and continue to train until leaving for Kentucky on March 31.

"Harlan's Holiday will work once more here before he leaves," said McPeek. "Probably on the 26th or 27th. Repent will work again the middle of this week."

McPeek, who earned his first Grade 1 win with Harlan's Holiday's victory in the Florida Derby, will not be on hand for Repent's next work. He left for Dubai on Monday for a vacation and to take in Saturday's Dubai World Cup.

"Winning a Grade 1 race isn't easy," said McPeek. "I can personally attest to that. It was starting to get really frustrating because I had been so close so many times. I'd finished second in the Kentucky Derby, had a third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a third in the Juvenile Fillies, a third in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, a third in the Ashland and several other near-misses. They say once you get one they come in three's. I sure hope they are right."

Bell not rushing Changeintheweather

Trainer David Bell resisted the temptation to run his Kentucky Derby hopeful, Changeintheweather, in Saturday's Florida Derby. He instead opted for a second-level allowance, which his colt won with a game performance a week earlier. Bell will now set his sights on either the Blue Grass or Illinois Derby for Changeintheweather, a Pin Oak Stable homebred.

"Both the Blue Grass and Illinois Derby are good time-wise," said Bell. "We'll assess out the competition in both races and then make a decision. He'll work here next Monday and ship to Kentucky the next day. Fortunately I'm not under any pressure to make the Kentucky Derby. I don't have to go if I feel he's not ready."

Changeintheweather closed out his 2-year-old season winning Woodbine's Grade 1 Grey Breeders' Cup. He finished third, beaten a neck, in a strangely run allowance race to open his 3-year-old campaign before rallying from fifth in the final furlong to beat similar allowance company in his last start.

"He didn't get a lot out of his first race," said Bell. Jockey Jorge Chavez, he said, "had to ride him hard to win his last but told me there was a lot left in the tank at the end. We've got to find out sooner or later if he belongs, and now looks like the time for him to really improve and get going."

Equality impresses Motion

Before Bell makes any final plans with Changeintheweather he may also have to converse with his colleague Graham Motion, who trains another Triple Crown contender for Pin Oak, Sunday's Tampa Bay Derby winner, Equality.

"He was very impressive the way he won up there," said Motion. "Especially the way he handled everything so nicely: the trip, the strange surroundings, a tough post and stakes competition for the first time."

Motion has many options available with Equality, although the plan will be to keep him separate from Changeintheweather. At least until Derby Day.

"Right now I'm thinking the Blue Grass or Arkansas Derby would be next," Motion said, although he said he wouldn't rule out the possibility he could stay here and go in the Aventura Stakes on April 6. Noting the Aventura's 1 1/16-mile distance, though, Motion said, "I really would like to find out if he will handle a mile and one eighth. I'll probably wait a week before making a final decision."

Motion had a big day on two fronts Sunday. He also sent out Pin Oak's 3-year-old filly Alternate to an easy maiden victory.

"She broke slow and still finished third in her first start and then was scratched at the gate after another horse acted up, causing her to react and cut up her hocks," said Motion. "But with her pedigree - she's a half sister to Peaks and Valleys - and the way she's trained, I always thought she'd be a real serious filly."

- Trainer Bill Mott said Listen Here, a game second behind Ethan Man making his 3-year-old debut in Saturday's Swale, will make his next start in the Bay Shore Stakes. He also advised that Yankee Gentleman, who ran seven furlongs just a tick slower than Ethan Man in an extremely impressive career debut, would run back against allowance company.

- Take the Cake, who won the Forward Gal Stakes earlier in the meet, worked five furlongs in 1:00 here Monday and will make her next start in Saturday's $150,000 Bourbonette Breeders' Cup Stakes at Turfway Park.

- Other notables to work here Monday in preparation for upcoming stakes assignments included Cat Cay (half-mile in 48.20 seconds), Straight Gin (five furlongs in 1:03), and Whata Brainstorm (one mile in 1:44).