02/06/2004 1:00AM

Champ makes 2004 debut

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Action This Day, with David Flores aboard, gets in some work at Santa Anita for his 2004 debut, the Sham.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Action This Day might spend the rest of his career trying to prove his 26-1 upset in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was more than just a fluke. Or, he can step up Sunday and erase all doubt in his comeback race at Santa Anita.

Seven 3-year-olds entered the $75,000 Sham Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile race that is merely a starting point for Action This Day, the 2003 champion juvenile. A win in the Sham would provide the ideal launch and validate Action This Day's status as a leading Kentucky Derby, one with a style and pedigree to run all day.

"I think he's ready for the [Sham], with room to improve," trainer Richard Mandella said, adding a caution to skeptical bettors. The Sham may be the first start in 3 1/2 months for Action This Day, but Mandella and owner B. Wayne Hughes do not expect to be embarrassed. "The important thing is to get a race in him. But I've had time to get him what I think is very ready."

concedes a current racing advantage to his main rivals. Master David finished third in the Grade 2 Santa Catalina on Jan. 17; Borrego won an allowance race Dec. 27; Winner From Mars won an allowance race Jan. 18. The other entrants are Preachinatthebar, Gethsemani, and True Contender.

It has been 25 years since a 2-year-old champion returned to win the Kentucky Derby, and few compare Action This Day to the 1979 Derby winner, Spectacular Bid. Yet Mandella agrees that Action This Day "is the right kind" of 2-year-old champion likely to improve at age 3. A son of Kris S. who has raced only three times, Action This Day is bred to improve with experience and longer distances.

"He's starting out at a mile and an eighth, and you don't do that with every horse," Mandella said. "But the way he trains, he acts like he's begging for [the distance]. I think he's a natural for it." David Flores rides Action This Day, who Mandella said has "grown up in every way, physically and mentally."

He is not facing particularly strong opposition, another reason to expect victory in his first start back. The most likely alternative is Bobby Frankel-trained Master David, who finished second in the slow-paced Remsen at Aqueduct, then third in an unusual performance in his West Coast debut in the Santa Catalina.

did not break well, was gunned into contention, struggled on the far turn, then went one-paced and finished third. Surprisingly, his Beyer Speed Figure of 94, earned even while noncompetitive, is the best last-start figure in the Sham field. Frankel expects an improved effort with different strategy.

"I don't think he wants to be ridden like that," Frankel said. "Our plan is to let him break and sit wherever he's at. If there's no pace, he might be head-and-head for the lead. We want him to make that one run." Master David, who began his career in England, has won 1 of 5 and will be ridden Sunday by Alex Solis.

Borrego ran three times on turf, then switched to dirt and scored a visually impressive allowance win Dec. 27 at 1 1/16 miles. The colt he beat, Dwango, returned to run poorly, but Borrego's trainer, Beau Greely, is optimistic the additional distance will benefit Borrego, sired by El Prado.

"The farther he goes, the better. He's got a big, long stride," Greely said. "He's pretty fresh right now. He could be closer than you think." Borrego has won 2 of 4, and will be ridden by Tyler Baze.

Winner From Mars won his first two starts on grass and is trying dirt for the first time; Preachinatthebar finished fourth in the Santa Catalina; True Contender regressed in two starts following a sharp debut win; and Gethsemani stretches out following a third-place finish in the six-furlong San Miguel.