03/16/2002 1:00AM

This day at the races stars O.J. (yes, that O.J.)


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The gawkers and whisperers were out in force Saturday in the vicinity of Sec. 224 in the clubhouse box.

That's where O.J. Simpson watched the beginning of the Florida Derby card with a small group of friends before moving on to the turf club. Simpson, who now lives in the Miami suburb of Kendall, said it was his first-ever trip to Gulfstream.

"I used to go to the track in California all the time," said Simpson, who formerly owned horses in partnership with B. Wayne Hughes and other Los Angeles-area owners.

Simpson, attired in a dark green suit with an open-collared black shirt, mostly was allowed his privacy, although the occasional passerby stopped to shake hands or introduce himself or herself. He said he cashed a ticket on the first race when Nantucketeer rallied to prevail at 4-1.

"I thought with all the speed in there that he would come running," he said.

In 1995, Simpson was acquitted of murder charges in Los Angeles in the double slayings of his former wife, Nicole Simpson, and Ron Goldman. He moved to the Miami area from California several years ago.

Buddha looking good

Buddha showed himself to be a legitimate possibility for a major Kentucky Derby prep race by rolling to a 9 1/2-length victory in the third race Saturday, an entry-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles.

Ridden by Edgar Prado, Buddha emerged from a first-turn traffic jam to race among the leading flight before easily drawing away in a sharp 1:42.29. He paid $5 as the favorite in a field of seven 3-year-olds.

Trainer Jim Bond said Buddha could race next in the April 13 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, although "we'll take it one day at a time," he said. "He's progressed really well since I started training him the first week of December."

Gary and Mary West, who were home in Nebraska because of previous commitments, are the owners of Buddha, a gray Unbridled's Song colt who raced once for Bill Mott last fall before being turned over to Bond at Payson Park.

Monarchoftheglen, an A.P. Indy colt trained by Niall O'Callaghan, finished second, 5 1/4 lengths ahead of Doc Wild.

One race earlier, Bond sent out Harbor Star to a narrow defeat behind Strive in a two-turn maiden race. Bond said Buddha and Harbor Star have worked together on a regular basis at Payson and that it initially appeared Harbor Star "might have been the better of the two. But that's in the morning. In the afternoon, he doesn't seem to have the heart this one does, and that's what separates the men from the boys."

Pletcher strong off the bench

Trainer Todd Pletcher continues to bring his arsenal of stakes-winning older horses off the bench, sending out Distilled to finish third under allowance conditions in Saturday's sixth race. Earlier in the week Pletcher brought his Grade 1-winning filly Tweedside back from a 5 1/2-month layoff to win a fourth-level allowance race on the turf and Invisible Ink to finish second under similar conditions on the main track in his first start since the Belmont Stakes.

Distilled had been idle since injuring a suspensory during the running of the 2001 Coolmore Lexington Stakes in what was to serve as a final prep for a possible appearance in the Kentucky Derby. A son of Hennessy, Distilled won the Grade 2 Illinois Derby in his previous start.

Distilled broke a step slow, moved to contention along the rail, and then finished evenly in his comeback on Saturday. The effort pleased his trainer.

"I thought it was a good effort for the first time back and should serve a purpose," said Pletcher. "He bobbled just a little at the break and got outsprinted the first part of it, then made a decent move around the turn and galloped out quite well."

Pletcher said both Distilled and Invisible Ink are candidates "for everything" at the moment.

"I'm not sure what they'll do next, although there is a stakes at Sportsman's Park on April 20" - the $200,000 National Jockey Club Handicap - "that might make sense for Distilled since he won the Illinois Derby over that track last year."

Ubiquity may go in Jockey Club

Another horse who could be headed to the National Jockey Club is Ubiquity, who has not started since finishing 13th after forcing a torrid pace in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap. Ubiquity collapsed after the race but made a quick recovery and lost little if any training time as a result of the incident.

"I'm not sure where he'll run next, but the Sportsman's race is a possibility," trainer H. James Bond said on Saturday, while at the same time ruling out any chance Ubiquity would run in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Handicap on March 30.

"Mongoose is the only horse I'll nominate for the Gulfstream Park Handicap," said Bond. "He'll either run here or in the Oaklawn Park Handicap. I want to wait and look at the weights for both races before making a final decision."

Mongoose rallied for a neck victory over Red Bullet, who was subsequently disqualified and placed fourth, in the Donn.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch