02/09/2005 1:00AM

Big horse may be the big one

Harlington, with John Velazquez aboard, comes back from his second victory in as many starts, a 1 1/8-mile race at Gulfstream last month.

It begins each April, at Keeneland and Belmont, rolls like a vast wave through Saratoga, and then back to Belmont again. The tide of Todd Pletcher-trained 2-year-olds flows strong and steady.

The ones in early spring are quick as lightning. They snap out of the gate and dash 4 1/2 furlongs, cutting the corner, springing into the stretch. The distances stretch out to six furlongs come July, but still the sprinters rule; strong, fast, aggressive, the midsummer winners mostly are built for speed.

While Pletcher's summertime 2-year-olds blazed last year, another horse came into the barn - another kind of horse altogether. His name is Harlington, and the thinking goes that his time is now.

Harlington, purchased as a yearling for $2.8 million by Eugene and Laura Melnyk, has started his career with two victories, the first on Nov. 28 in a one-turn mile at Aqueduct, the second - a more assertive victory than his debut run - around two turns at 1 1/8 miles Jan. 15 at Gulfstream. He travels to New Orleans this week and makes his stakes debut Saturday in the Grade 3 Risen Star, an important step toward, as Pletcher called it in a recent interview, "The Big One" - the .

Pletcher, fresh off an Eclipse Award-winning season and a pair of victories last fall in the Breeders' Cup, has been to The Big One before. But he has not won it. Invisible Ink finished second to Monarchos in 2001. Pletcher ran third, fourth, 11th, and 19th when he swarmed the 2000 Derby. In four trips to The Big One, Pletcher has gone 0-9, and a breakthrough must rank high on his to-do list.

He does not hesitate to mention the words "Harlington" and "Derby" in the same thread of thought. Unlike many of his most talented horses the past five seasons, Harlington is supposed to improve the closer he gets to the Derby's 1 1/4-mile distance.

"I'm more concerned about turning him back to a mile and a sixteenth this weekend than having him run farther," said Pletcher.

A mating between the deceased 1990 Kentucky Derby winner, Unbridled, and Serena's Song, the dazzling Grade 1 winner who finished 16th in the 1995 Derby, produced Harlington. All along, the colt was supposed to be one of the ones.

"We get a few horses every year that are expensive," Pletcher said. "We try not to be intimidated."

The key to Harlington was moving slowly, which meant keeping him away from the races for most of his 2-year-old season.

"He was the kind of horse you could identify as a yearling as one who would be a late 2-year-old," Pletcher said.

When 2004's first 2-year-old races began, Harlington wasn't prepared to get out of a common gallop. Those who saw him at the 2003 Keeneland September sale where he was purchased describe the horse as gorgeous: long-legged, regal in bearing, with classic dimensions. But Phil Hronec, who breaks Melnyk racehorses at their Winding Oaks Farm near Ocala, Fla., was one of the few who got to keep watching, day after day, when Harlington was taken home.

"He was one of my last 2-year-olds I broke," Hronec said. "He was always a wonderful horse to be around in terms of disposition, but there were moments early in his training when he wandered."

That is, Harlington, big and beautiful, was miles away from being a racehorse during the spring of his 2-year-old season.

"When he worked three-eighths or a half-mile, even an ordinary horse would outwork him," said Hronec. "But at the end of his works, you could see he'd always gallop out another eighth real strong. As fluid as his stride was, as long as it was, that gave you hope. He ran like a big kid, a kid in a man's body."

Large, long-bodied horses tend to develop aches and pains more than compact models, especially if they are asked to train full-time while still growing up, but Harlington, Hronec said, stayed remarkably healthy. His physical development moved forward month by month without any setbacks.

"This horse never even bucked shins," said Hronec, referring to the common, nagging 2-year-old ailment. "He never had a puffy ankle, a muscle pull behind. He's been as solid as they come from the very beginning."

Pletcher said he and Hronec touch base a few times every week, but rarely talk shop. "I don't talk to him too much about a single horse he's working with," Pletcher said. "That's Phil's job."

Still, Pletcher knew what was coming in when it was time for Harlington to move from farm to racetrack - and he had a plan.

Pletcher's catchall edict concerning 2-year-old training is, "You don't take away what's coming easy, and you don't force what's not ready to happen." That meant sitting back patiently, as fall crept forward, and finding just the right moment. Aqueduct's one-turn miles are long enough to give a true route horse room to operate, but they don't throw down the mental puzzles of a two-turn race, with its extra lead changes and shifts in tempo that might overwhelm an immature colt. And as the Aqueduct meet nears year end, many of the higher-quality New York 2-year-olds already have cleared the maiden ranks, or headed to south Florida to await battle there.

"Todd could probably have had him ready a little sooner, but he did an excellent job with him," Hronec said. "He kind of babied him along a little bit, knowing what we paid for him and the expectations."

Pletcher sent another later-developing, unbeaten 3-year-old with a strong pedigree to the Risen Star two seasons ago, but that colt, Indy Dancer, flopped in his stakes debut and has not won since. But Pletcher quickly squelches any comparison between the two colts: Indy Dancer was a paceless one-run closer, while Harlington has been showing more and more speed.

Last Sunday, Harlington worked a swift five furlongs at Pletcher's south Florida training base, Palm Meadows.

"Todd was very excited about him after the work," said Hronec. "He said, 'I think we got the real thing - we've just got to get lucky with him.' "