03/17/2004 12:00AM

Getting down to business

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The field for the April 3 Santa Anita Derby is in flux, with several trainers considering sending locally based horses out of town for their final Kentucky Derby tune-ups, but two of the top contenders for that race began serious preparations on Wednesday for the West's key Derby prep race.

Imperialism and Lion Heart, the one-two finishers in the San Rafael Stakes, both had their first works since that March 6 race. Imperialism covered a half-mile at Hollywood Park in 47.60 seconds, while Lion Heart breezed a half-mile at Santa Anita in 48.60 seconds.

Lion Heart came out on the track at Santa Anita after the 9 a.m. renovation break. Looking regal, with his neck bowed, he galloped easily through the stretch and into the backstretch, then went through his work while under a tight hold from his exercise rider.

"Nice and easy," Patrick Biancone, the trainer of Lion Heart, remarked after the work. "He'll have two more works. So far, so good."

Lion Heart forced a wicked early pace in the San Rafael, then was caught late by Imperialism. It was the first loss for Lion Heart after winning his first three races. The race was taxing, but Lion Heart bounced back quickly, Biancone said.

"He got back his weight in two days. He had lost more than usual," Biancone said.

Action This Day may wait till later

While both Imperialism and Lion Heart are set for the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby, the status of several others may change, most notably Action This Day.

Action This Day, last year's champion 2-year-old colt, suffered a cut to his right hind leg in Sunday's San Felipe Stakes. His trainer, Richard Mandella, said the injury was healing, but said he would likely wait an extra week for Action This Day's next race.

"The injury makes him doubtful for the Santa Anita Derby," Mandella said Wednesday. "We changed the bandage on him Tuesday. It was dry, which is good. He's not sore. So far, so good. But he's probably going to need another week."

The April 10 races include the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Mandella said the Blue Grass was the most likely option for Action This Day.

If Action This Day does go to the Blue Grass, he would face Preachinatthebar, the winner of Sunday's San Felipe Stakes.

Baffert to split up his pair

Bob Baffert, the trainer of Preachinatthebar, said he decided to keep Wimbledon, the Louisiana Derby winner, here for the Santa Anita Derby, and would send Preachinatthebar out of town to Keeneland.

"It's closer to Princeton, Indiana," Baffert said, referring to the boyhood home of Mike Pegram, Preachinatthebar's owner and breeder. "I don't want to ship Wimbledon. He's already shipped once."

Wimbledon on Wednesday had his first work since the Louisiana Derby. With exercise rider Dana Barnes aboard, he breezed a half-mile in 48 seconds while easily besting a workmate.

St Averil stays; Borrego might leave

St Averil, who came up a nose short of catching Preachinatthebar, "came out of the race super," said trainer Rafael Becerra. It was St Averil's first race in eight weeks, since he captured the Santa Catalina Stakes. Becerra said St Averil most likely would return in the Santa Anita Derby, but said there was a slight possibility he would skip that race and go straight into the May 1 Kentucky Derby.

"The only problem with the Santa Anita Derby is that it's just 20 days back," Becerra said. "But the problem with waiting until the Kentucky Derby is that I think he wants to run more often. There was a little too big a gap between the Santa Catalina and the San Felipe."

Borrego, who finished second to Wimbledon in the Louisiana Derby, is possible for the Santa Anita Derby, but could wait a week for the Arkansas Derby.

"Right now, it's 50-50," trainer Beau Greely said.

One factor Greely will have to consider is that Victor Espinoza, who rode Borrego in the Louisiana Derby, already has committed to another colt he regularly rides, Imperialism, for the Santa Anita Derby, according to Espinoza's agent, Tony Matos. If Greely wants to keep Espinoza, the Arkansas Derby might be his best option.

Another colt who is likely to bypass the Santa Anita Derby in favor of the Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass is the lightly raced, unbeaten Rock Hard Ten, whose two victories have caused his future-book price in Las Vegas to plummet. His trainer, Jason Orman, said Rock Hard Ten would work Saturday with jockey Gary Stevens, and that a determination as to his next start would be made after that drill.

Nakatani to appeal 30-day penalty

The attorney for jockey Corey Nakatani plans a vigorous appeal of a 30-day suspension Nakatani received following a March 6 incident in which Nakatani's mount drifted outward and caused a spill. Stewards ruled that Nakatani violated California Horse Racing Rule No. 1885 (rough riding - wanton act resulting in a racing accident).

Attorney Don Calabria maintains that stewards misinterpreted Nakatani's actions before the spill, and said they were "way off base" in the severity of the penalty, which he expects will be substantially reduced when the appeal is heard before an administrative law judge.

A Superior Court judge on Monday granted a stay of Nakatani's 30-day suspension, pending the appeal. Calabria said Wednesday that the CHRB had not informed him of the date of the hearing.

Pat O'Neill, trainer's father, dies

Pat O'Neill, a horse owner and the father of trainer Doug O'Neill, died from a heart attack Tuesday. He was 69. He is survived by his wife, Dixie, and sons Dave, Dennis, and Doug.

Pat O'Neill was an avid horseplayer who often was in his son's winner's circle photos. A funeral will be held Saturday at 10 a.m. at Annunciation Church in Arcadia, according to Dennis O'Neill.

Researched and Meteor Storm work

Researched, who is scheduled to run in Saturday's San Luis Rey Stakes, worked a half-mile in 51 seconds on the turf Wednesday morning for trainer Ben Cecil.

Meteor Storm, who also is expected to run in the San Luis Rey, worked a half-mile in 48.20 seconds on Hollywood Park's main track for trainer Wally Dollase.

* Top older mare Wild Spirit, preparing for her seasonal debut in next month's Apple Blossom Handicap, worked six furlongs in 1:13.60 on Wednesday morning at Hollywood Park for trainer Bobby Frankel.

* As the field for Wednesday's first race moved around the first turn and into the backstretch, Santa Anita's infield television screen was showing the beginning of a race from Gulfstream Park. As the Santa Anita runners neared the far turn, the picture switched to Santa Anita's race, causing one fan on the grandstand apron to loudly, sarcastically, yell, "Thank you."

- additional reporting by Brad Free