03/19/2002 12:00AM

Derby picture looks clear as mud

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LAS VEGAS - While Harlan's Holiday (by Harlan) stamped himself a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender with an authoritative victory in last Saturday's Florida Derby, the 3-year-old picture remains cloudy.

Siphonic (Siphon), one the early Kentucky Derby favorites based on his impressive 2-year-old form, all but raced himself out of the Derby with a no-excuse third-place finish in the San Felipe Stakes. Mayakovsky (Matty G) ran to expectations, winning the one-mile Gotham Stakes after a six-month layoff, but it was alarming seeing him drift out badly near the finish. Based on his running style and pedigree, Mayakovsky would only be a pace factor in the Kentucky Derby and should be kept to races at one mile and under.

Saarland's (Unbridled) 3-year-old debut, a second in the Gotham, could not have been better. A plodder at 2, Saarland was only four lengths off Mayakovsky's sizzling pace and still rallied wide into the stretch and finished full of run. Take a look at Saarland's stride at the finish. With so many questions about most of this year's 3-year-olds being able to get a distance, there is absolutely no doubt that Saarland is Kentucky Derby material.

While the Florida Derby, Gotham Stakes, and San Felipe Stakes took center stage last weekend, some lightly raced 3-year-olds caused a stir in other races, including Buddha, who won a 1 1/16-mile allowance on the Florida Derby undercard like a budding star. Buddha is by Unbridled's Song, whose offspring are displaying high quality.

First trained by Bill Mott, Buddha showed speed in his debut at 2 in a seven-furlong maiden race at Belmont on Sept. 22, but stopped abruptly and finished 10th. He was found to have an entrapped epiglottis and did not race again until Feb. 9, when impressively won a seven-furlong maiden race for new trainer H. James Bond.

Facing some promising 3-year-olds last Saturday, including Monarchoftheglen (A.P. Indy), Buddha simply blew them all away. Carried out six wide into the first turn by Monarchoftheglen, Buddha looked powerful rating under Edgar Prado and accelerated with ease in the stretch to win by 9 1/2 lengths, in the very good time of 1:42.29. Buddha is out of the Storm Cat mare Cahooters, and his third dam, Beaufix, is a half-sister to Damascus.

Monarchoftheglen surprisingly set the pace Saturday, and although he finished second behind Buddha, he didn't look as good as he did in his previous race, a second-place finish in his first U.S. start. By A.P. Indy, he's a three-quarter brother to stakes winner Lakeway. His dam is a full sister to Saratoga Six, and his second dam is a full sister to Bold Forbes.

Yankee Gentleman (Storm Cat), trained by Mott, won a maiden seven-furlong race by 11 lengths in an auspicious debut. His time of 1:22.43 wasn't much slower than that of the more experienced Ethan Man, who won the Swale Stakes in 1:22.29 earlier on the program. Yankee Gentleman is out of the Flying Paster mare Key Phrase, and his second dam, Sown (Grenfall), is a half-sister to stakes winner and California-based sire Pirate's Bounty.

Tell J (A.P. Indy), also making his first start, had a troubled trip and finished second (at 10-1) to Yankee Gentleman. Tell J is trained by Nick Zito. Tell J's female family has been producing stakes-quality runners for many generations. His dam is out of Nikishka (Nijinsky II), winner of the Las Palmas Handicap, and his third dam, Bendara (Never Bend), is out of the 1965 3-year-old filly champion, What a Treat. Bendara finished second to 1971 2-year-old filly champion Numbered Account in the Schuylerville Stakes and third to Numbered Account and Rondeau in the Fashion Stakes.

Equality (Mt. Livermore), winner of the Tampa Bay Derby, is closely related to Canadian Horse of the Year and multiple Grade 1 winner Peaks and Valleys, now a promising young sire. Peaks and Valleys is by Mt. Livermore out of Strike a Balance (Green Dancer), while Equality, also by Mt. Livermore, is out of a daughter of Strike a Balance. Other stakes winners from this family include Wedding Picture, Winged Victory, Service Stripe, Broken Vow, Wedlock, and Open Mind, champion filly at 2 and 3.

Ethan Man (Glitterman), who easily won the Swale Stakes, is bred for strictly speed on both sides of his pedigree. Glitterman's runners sometimes carry their speed to middle distances under ideal circumstances (for example, Glitter Woman and Balto Star), but they are not equipped to handle 1 1/4 miles. In addition, Ethan Man is out of a mare by Imp Society, who was by the blazing sprinter Barrera.

While Medaglia d'Oro (El Prado) looked good upsetting the San Felipe Stakes, his victory may be due more to his suspect competition. This year's California-based 3-year-olds have absolutely no chance in the Kentucky Derby. Siphonic had no apparent excuse in the San Felipe, and U S S Tinosa (Foxhound) may still be a better animal on the turf. Sunday Break (Forty Niner) was originally scheduled to run in the San Felipe but was declared not ready by trainer Neil Drysdale. Finally, the best California-based 3-year-old, Came Home, is a classy miler who may stretch out to win the Santa Anita Derby, but will want no part of 1 1/4 miles.