01/03/2008 1:00AM

Giant Moon's team wouldn't prefer anyone else

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OZONE PARK, N.Y - As far as the Kentucky Derby is concerned, Saturday's $75,000 Count Fleet Stakes is akin to the Iowa caucus and the presidential race. A win doesn't guarantee future success, but a loss could be deflating.

"If you do good in it, that's good; if you do bad in it, that's bad," said Richard Schosberg, who trains likely Count Fleet favorite Giant Moon for owner-breeder Al Fried. "But I said to Al yesterday I certainly wouldn't want to trade positions with anybody that nominated to that race, that's for sure."

Seventeen 3-year-olds were nominated to the Count Fleet and seven entered. Giant Moon, the 120-pound highweight who breaks from post 7, is 3 for 3, though all three victories came against New York-breds. He comes off a hard-earned front-running 1 3/4-length victory in the Damon Runyon Stakes on Dec. 9, a race in which he dueled with Spanky Fischbein virtually every step before pulling away late.

Giant Moon, a son of Giant's Causeway, has been a bit of a puzzle for Schosberg. Entering his last two races, Schosberg thought Giant Moon may not have been 100 percent. But the colt did just what he had to do to win. This time, Schosberg sees a sharper colt and isn't sure what to make of that.

"I hope that's not a bad thing," Schosberg said. "You want to see that with a young horse, but he's been such a clown going into his last few races, you don't want to see him too different."

Schosberg wants to see improvement, however, and Giant Moon will have to improve against this intriguing group of 3-year-olds. Barrier Reef and Roman Emperor appear to be his two most serious challengers.

Barrier Reef, a son of Mizzen Mast, overcame a difficult trip - much of it his own doing - to win a two-turn maiden race on Dec. 8. His trainer, Tom Albertrani, believes the experience has moved the colt forward.

"He's training really well going into the race, I couldn't be happier with the way he's been doing," Albertrani said. "That's all I can ask for. Right now it's up to the horse."

Roman Emperor, a son of 2003 Belmont winner Empire Maker, has won his last two starts, both since trainer Steve Klesaris added blinkers. Klesaris said Roman Emperor reminds him of Coronado's Quest - a Grade 1 winner - in that both had their prerace antics.

"He has some idiosyncrasies being saddled, but he's been a real professional on the racetrack," Klesaris said.

Spanky Fischbein, Red Reef, and Atta Boy Andy complete the field.