02/25/2004 1:00AM

Chosen few can get classic distance

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LAS VEGAS - The Kentucky Derby is only nine weeks from Saturday, and while America's most prestigious race appears wide-open as of this date, there are a handful of colts who will prosper at 1 1/4 miles.

Action This Day: While many have found fault with Action This Day, especially after his fourth-place return in the Sham Stakes on Feb. 8, these are probably the same people who were unimpressed with his Breeders' Cup Juvenile victory, which they said was "slow." It must be pointed out that Action This Day was not bred to be a top 2-year-old, and the fact that he blossomed quickly at the end of his juvenile season bodes well for his success at age 3.

While Action This Day took advantage of a Breeders' Cup Juvenile field that was full of sprinters who never wanted any part of 1 1/16 miles, it was only his third race, and this is a colt who has unlimited potential at classic distances. Action This Day is by the late Kris S., a son of Roberto who has sired champions Hollywood Wildcat and Soaring Softly; Symboli Kris S, a Japanese Horse of the Year; Kris Kin, an Epsom Derby winner; and Prized, a Breeders' Cup Turf and Super Derby winner. Furthermore, Action This Day is out of a mare by Trempolino, winner of Europe's most important race, the 1 1/2-mile Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

Away over three months, Action This Day was having a lot asked of him to win at 1 1/8 miles, and was obviously in need of a race. Considering this, his wide, fourth-place finish in the Sham was quite good. The improving winner, Master David, had the benefit of a recent race at this distance and over this surface. But Master David (Grand Slam) may find that 1 1/8 miles is his limit.

Gradepoint: Gradepoint, who made his customary late run to win the Risen Star Stakes over favored Mr. Jester, is also a colt bred to relish 1 1/4 miles. By A.P. Indy out of a Kris S. mare, Gradepoint has now won three consecutive races at 1 1/16 miles, and should be dramatically better at longer distances.

Tapit: The undefeated Tapit has yet to make his 3-year-old debut, and while there is reason for concern, the bottom line is that this colt has the talent and pedigree (and a legendary trainer) to be a force come Derby Day. Facing hopelessly overmatched rivals in the Laurel Futurity (in only his second start), Tapit displayed unusual maturity and raw ability to overcome a very troubled trip and near-certain defeat. Trainer Michael Dickinson originally scheduled Tapit to run in the Risen Star, but postponed the colt's 3-year-old debut after Tapit missed a workout because of a sore shin and wet weather in Louisiana.

Now training regularly at Dickinson's Tapeta Farm, Tapit is possible for the Florida Derby, where he will face the battle-tested Read the Footnotes and Master David.

Tapit is by an emerging young stallion, Pulpit (A.P. Indy), who finished a courageous fourth in the Kentucky Derby, where he sustained a career-ending injury. Tapit gets a ton of stamina from his damsire, Unbridled, and all this, combined with the class of his female family, is formidable. His dam, stakes winner Tap Your Heels, is a half-sister to a champion sprinter, Rubiano, and his second dam, Ruby Slippers (Nijinsky II), is a half-sister to Glitterman. And there's more: His third dam, stakes winner Moon Glitter (In Reality), is a full sister to the influential stallion Relaunch.

Tiger Hunt: Training well for his expected 3-year-old debut in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, Tiger Hunt is the forgotten horse. But a good performance in the Rebel will set him up perfectly for the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby, his final prep before the Kentucky Derby. A winner of his first two starts, Tiger Hunt finished second to Eurosilver while in traffic on the second turn in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity, and then just missed third by a nose to the tiring Chapel Royal in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

By Kris S., Tiger Hunt is out of a Conquistador Cielo mare, Thega, and this female family descends from the prolific broodmare Shy Dancer. Stakes winner and top sprint sire Two Punch comes from his line, as does a champion 2-year-old filly Heavenly Cause. Other stakes winners from this family include Petite Rouge, Shy Dawn, Opening Verse, Purple Mountain, Lady Dulcinea, Dawn Quixote, Champagne Charlie, Seattle Morn, and Ring o' Bells.

Eddington: From the next-to-last crop of the late classic sire Unbridled (sire of Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone, Preakness Stakes winner Red Bullet, and Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker), Eddington gets more stamina points from his damsire, Chief's Crown, and his second damsire, Sir Ivor, plus plenty of class from his dam, Fashion Star. Winner of a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Gulfstream on Feb. 7, this is a colt crying out for more distance.

There are still serious doubts whether the talented trio of Eurosilver (Unbridled's Song), Birdstone (Grindstone), and Read the Footnotes (Smoke Glacken) will be at their best at 1 1/4 miles. There are no such doubts, however, that the following horses are ill-suited to 1 1/4 miles: Lion Heart (Tale of the Cat), Fire Slam (Grand Slam), Silver Wagon (Wagon Limit), Swingforthefences (Boston Harbor), Value Plus (Unbridled's Song), and Smarty Jones (Elusive Quality).