04/03/2003 1:00AM

Blinkers increase Wild Cat's appeal


NEW YORK - Saturday is the best day of stakes racing since Breeders' Cup Day last October. Azeri, the reigning Horse of the Year, makes the first start in defense of her title in the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn, and Medaglia d'Oro, who has a realistic chance at this season's Horse of the Year award, competes on the same program in the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap. Given their accomplishments, and the probable short odds, it's hard to bet on or against either of them. Nevertheless, Oaklawn engineered quite a coup attracting two stars on the order of Azeri and Medaglia d'Oro.

That's just the beginning. The $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, a major prep for the Kentucky Derby, tops a card that also includes the $150,000 San Bernardino and the $100,000 Las Cienegas. The Santa Anita Derby also anchors the NTRA Spring Pick 3, which features two other races that can be employed as stepping-stones to the Triple Crown. This national pick three begins with the $250,000 Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream, and the $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, which last year proved to be the springboard to Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories by War Emblem.

And that's not all. Keeneland has a terrific race in the $500,000 Ashland, which attracted almost every good 3-year-old filly in training this side of Storm Flag Flying.

It should be great. Get tied on.

Santa Anita Derby

Atswhatimtalknbout is certainly the one to beat. He will love the added sixteenth of a mile off his near-miss most recently in the San Felipe. But he is a one-run closer, and the favorite. I don't like taking one-run closers at short prices because they are always vulnerable to an unfavorable pace and traffic trouble. So I'm going with Ministers Wild Cat.

Ministers Wild Cat showed immaturity and ran only in spots winning and finishing second in stakes at Golden Gate in his last two starts. I think that makes him a prime candidate to improve substantially in blinkers, which he adds Saturday. He will also appreciate the return to Santa Anita, where he won his maiden stylishly three back, and most importantly, he represents value. After being favored in his first four starts, Ministers Wild Cat could be around 5-1.

In the first two legs of the Spring Pick 3, I like Valid Video over Dynever in the Aventura, and Ten Most Wanted in the Illinois Derby. There has been so much hype over Dynever that this winner of only a maiden race is certain to be an unacceptably low price Saturday. Valid Video, meanwhile, is a three-time stakes winner. He impressed me winning the Sunshine Millions Dash off a layoff, and is the class speed here. As for Ten Most Wanted, he was a nose behind my selection in the Santa Anita Derby when third last time out in the El Camino Real Derby. He figures to sit a good trip off a hot pace disputed by Runnin' on Nitro and Alysweep, among others.


As strong as this field is, Elloluv is a solid play. With all due respect to the much-improved Yell and the undefeated Lady Tak, Elloluv is the best filly in this race. She lost narrow decisions to Composure in two Grade 1's at Santa Anita in her last two starts, and shocked Composure late last year in the Hollywood Starlet. Up until her premature retirement, Composure was indisputably the second-best filly of her generation.

Not only is Elloluv the best horse, she is also the main speed. Given the way the main track at Keeneland naturally tilts in favor of speed horses, that makes for a combination that should be tough to beat.

San Bernardino

I picked Kela when he was entered in the General George in February. But, instead of shipping from California, he stayed home and won the Tokyo City Handicap at Santa Anita early last month at 6-1, without me. At the risk of chasing him, I expect Kela to win right back.

Kela, who assembled an impressive string of workouts before the Tokyo City, has worked even better since. There should be a legitimate pace for him to stalk, and though he is unproven at 1 1/8 miles, he likely has never been as good as he is at this moment.