03/10/2004 12:00AM

Big weekend for Mandella

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Action This Day, the reigning Breeders' Cup Juvenile champ, runs in the Grade 2, $250,000 San Felipe Stakes on Sunday at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - In the weeks leading up to the Breeders' Cup last fall at Santa Anita, everything fell into place for trainer Richard Mandella. His horses trained brilliantly, with nary a setback, and on the day of the races, he set a record, winning four.

Since then, Mandella has had a series of frustrating setbacks that might have aggravated someone with less equilibrium. It has not been a total disaster for Mandella. Far from it. He won the San Antonio Handicap with Pleasantly Perfect, for instance. But little else has gone to plan.

Mandella first had to postpone the scheduled 3-year-old debuts of his two Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-olds, Action This Day and the filly Halfbridled. A minor illness forced Pleasantly Perfect to skip last week's Santa Anita Handicap, in which he would have been a heavy favorite. And Mandella has had no luck with Minister Eric, who is desperately seeking a place to run for the first time since finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Minister Eric did not draw into the Baldwin Stakes two weeks ago. Since then, he has been entered in several first-level allowance races that have not filled.

It might have taken longer than planned for Mandella to gather momentum in 2004, but he is poised for liftoff this weekend at Santa Anita. Halfbridled, who won all four of her starts last year, is scheduled to make her first start of the year in Saturday's $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks. And on Sunday, Action This Day begins his push to the May 1 Kentucky Derby in the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes.

Those two races are among several key stakes for 3-year-olds this weekend. The richest is Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Read the Footnotes, the Fountain of Youth Stakes winner, was one of 10 runners entered Wednesday for that Grade 1 race, which also includes Tapit and Value Plus.

Like Mandella, Rick Violette is trying to pull off a weekend stakes double. The trainer of Read the Footnotes will also have the favorite in Sunday's $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby in Swingforthefences, who takes on Hutcheson Stakes winner Limehouse.

Also Saturday, Eurosilver, currently the early Derby favorite of Daily Racing Form's Mike Watchmaker, heads the field in the $150,000 Swale Stakes. And at Golden Gate Fields, Seattle Borders stretches out in the $200,000 El Camino Real Derby.

Action This Day was making only his third career start when he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He has been viewed with skepticism, because his final time was slower than that of Halfbridled's, and the race shape flattered his late-running style. A fourth-place finish in last month's Sham Stakes did not assuage doubters.

Mandella rightly points out, however, that Action This Day progressed rapidly last fall to win the Breeders' Cup after capturing a maiden race just four weeks earlier. He believes Action This Day was not ready for his best in the Sham, and thinks Action This Day can take a big leap forward this weekend.

"I might have been a little overconfident going into the Sham," Mandella said. "I think he'll improve a lot. After the Breeders' Cup, he got a rest. I made a schedule of what I thought might work, and the second choice became the first."

Mandella initially intended on running Action This Day in the Santa Catalina Stakes on Jan. 17, but decided to wait three weeks for the Sham because Action This Day was not training to his satisfaction. And then going into the Sham, a couple of workouts did not go to Mandella's exacting standards.

"He had a couple of works that weren't as fast as they needed to be. It wasn't his fault. He had workmates that couldn't keep up, and he didn't get enough out of it," Mandella said.

Since the Sham, Action This Day has trained sharply. His final major work last week was most impressive.

"I think he has a lot of upside," Mandella said. "Whether it's like going from a maiden race to winning the Breeders' Cup in only his third start, I don't know if it's that kind. But with seasoning and racing, it'll bring it out."

Action This Day, a son of Kris S., was purchased as a yearling for $150,000 by owner B. Wayne Hughes, who went down the Derby trail last year with Atswhatimtalknbout. When Action This Day began training with Mandella one year ago, he was a clumsy, sparsely made colt. He has since become more graceful, and more attractive.

"He's grown longer and taller and bigger in every way," Mandella said.

In other Derby developments:

* Jockey Richard Migliore will have to choose between Redskin Warrior and Song of the Sword if both run March 20 at different tracks. Redskin Warrior is scheduled to run in that day's Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, while Song of the Sword is ticketed to the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park.

* The unbeaten Rock Hard Ten, who won an allowance race at Santa Anita last week for his second victory, will run in either the April 3 Santa Anita Derby, "or one of the April 10 races," said his trainer, Jason Orman, referring to the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, or Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

* Master David, who was forced to skip the Florida Derby because of a minor illness, will run in the Wood on April 10 at Aqueduct.

- additional reporting by Karen M. Johnson