04/05/2004 11:00PM

California flavored Blue Grass

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Californians, here they come. The history of the Blue Grass Stakes is dotted with the occasional California horse making Keeneland his last stop before the Kentucky Derby, but the Blue Grass that will be run Saturday sports an unusually strong California slant.

Three of the major contenders - Action This Day, Preachinatthebar, and Lion Heart - hail from California, and the trainers of all three colts would like nothing more than for the Blue Grass to serve as a springboard to victory in the Derby three weeks hence. Their reasons for using the Blue Grass instead of another Derby prep - most notably, the Santa Anita Derby, which was run last Saturday in their own back yard - primarily involve the timing of the race, with all three believing the Blue Grass was the best available option because of their own particular situations.

Richard Mandella said the four-week period following the March 14 San Felipe at Santa Anita better suited Action This Day, whose owner, B. Wayne Hughes, normally likes to keep his horses in Southern California. Because Action This Day incurred a hind-leg cut that required several stitches when finishing seventh in the San Felipe, Mandella said the three weeks between the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby was not sufficient.

"When he came back after that last race, my first thought was, 'Game over,' " said Mandella. "But it was more superficial than anything. He got cut through the skin, but it didn't reach the tendon. It healed, but I felt like I just needed another week with him. I would have preferred to stay home and run, but we decided instead to come here."

Bob Baffert, trainer of Preachin-atthebar, already had reserved the Santa Anita Derby for another of his top prospects, Wimbledon, and like most trainers, he prefers not to run his best 3-year-olds against one another until the Kentucky Derby. After Preachinatthebar won the San Felipe by a nose over St Averil, the logical next prep was the Blue Grass or Wood Memorial, and although Baffert won the Wood in smashing fashion three years ago with Congaree, he settled on the Keeneland race.

"I thought it'd be a good spot," said Baffert. "He ran really hard in his last race, and I had to get as much time between races as I could. You see what happened to St Averil," who finished a disappointing sixth as the Santa Anita Derby favorite. "I felt like once my horse ran as hard as he did, I didn't need another really tough race like that one, at least not in three weeks."

Baffert said kiddingly that he had secret motives for running at Keeneland before adding: "It's nice. We'll be there to run Victory U. S. A. [Thursday in the Stonerside Beaumont] and for the race Saturday, and I'll be checking out some 2-year-olds before the sale next week. We're looking to have a good time."

Patrick Biancone, trainer of Lion Heart, said he initially intended to run Lion Heart in the Santa Anita Derby after his colt finished second, beaten a neck, in his seasonal debut, the March 6 San Rafael Stakes. But even four weeks wasn't enough to satisfy Biancone, who said a fifth week was more to his liking.

"He needed it to recover from his first race of the year," said Biancone.

As a group, the California contingent matches up favorably in a solid Blue Grass field. The most formidable opposition in a prospective field of nine 3-year-olds appears to be Limehouse and Mustanfar, the one-two finishers in the Tampa Bay Derby, and The Cliff's Edge, the third-place finisher in the Florida Derby. But, on balance, the Californians seem to hold the strongest hand.

This geographic inversion is an anomaly. Lucky Debonair came from California to win the Blue Grass and Derby in 1965, and Gato del Sol, trained by Eddie Gregson, was second in the Blue Grass before upsetting the Derby in 1982. Millennium Wind, ridden by Laffit Pincay Jr., flew in three years ago to win the Blue Grass before running 11th in the Derby.

But in the vast majority of cases, the Blue Grass has been the domain of Eastern horses and horsemen making an easy stopover at Keeneland before moving another 80 miles west to Churchill Downs. Indeed, Blue Grass lore is replete with names such as Riva Ridge, Spectacular Bid, Holy Bull, and Skip Away, all of them Eastern icons.

This year could prove the exception to the rule. Mandella, Baffert, and Biancone all are optimistic about their chances Saturday, and who can blame them? They say they were motivated to run in the Blue Grass by timing, circumstance, and an opportunity to maximize their chances for making the Derby. The few extra miles, they hope, will be worth it.