03/20/2002 1:00AM

Hap's back - at the right distance


NEW ORLEANS - Hap is neither a true miler nor a true stayer. That makes the nine-furlong distance of Sunday's Explosive Bid, to say nothing of the race's $700,000 purse, a good spot for Hap's first start of the season. And if Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott's assessment of Hap's condition is correct - and there's no reason to think it's not - Hap is in the Explosive Bid to win, not just to get his year started.

"He's got as much in him now as he did when he made his first start last year," Mott said.

Hap's seasonal debut last year produced an easy win in the Grade 2 Dixie Handicap, and a return to that sort of form would make him the horse to beat in the Grade 2 Explosive Bid.

is one of three horses shipping from Florida for the race. Hap and Pisces flew here Wednesday, while North East Bound traveled the same day by van. Four horses are expected to fly here from California early Thursday: Beat Hollow, Designed for Luck, Sarafan, and Suances. Sarafan and Designed for Luck finished second and third, respectively, in the Frank Kilroe Handicap, while Beat Hollow and Suances, who between them have started once in this country, bring big European reputations into the race.

But it is Hap who has done the most in his career, having won 10 races and nearly $1.3 million. Hap is a 6-year-old now, but he did not race until the summer of his 3-year-old season, and his 17 career starts have been picked judiciously. If Hap's reputation has suffered, it is in great part because of his performances in the Breeders' Cup. Two years ago, he finished eighth in the Mile, and last year he was fifth, beaten 10 lengths, in the Turf.

But neither of those races was at Hap's ideal distance. The Explosive Bid is. Hap has run six times in nine-furlong races, and he has yet to lose. "I think it's his best trip," Mott said.

Mott, who sent King Cugat out to a third-place finish in last year's Explosive Bid, said that Pat Day will pick up the mount on Hap because Jerry Bailey is riding in Dubai this weekend.

North East Bound takes a van

When trainer Bill Perry found out he would have to van North East Bound to Ocala, Fla., from Miami on Tuesday, then have the horse spend the night before boarding a flight to New Orleans, he thought better of flying at all.

"He's a good shipper anyway, so I just stuck him on the van," Perry said.

North East Bound left Perry's Gulfstream Park barn Monday and is scheduled to arrive at Fair Grounds Wednesday night.

The last south Florida-based horse who vanned rather than fly to Fair Grounds was Kiss a Native, who did not run to expectations when he finished far behind the leaders in the New Orleans Handicap. Still, Perry is not concerned about the effects of a van ride on North East Bound, who has rejuvenated a flagging career with three good races in Florida this winter.

North East Bound finished second in the Breeders' Cup Mile two years ago and won his first start of 2001, the Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland, but then ran six subpar races in a row. This winter, North East Bound won the off-the-turf Canadian Turf Handicap by four lengths, after finishing second by a neck in the Ft. Lauderdale Handicap and second by a head in the Appleton Handicap.

"There were just a lot of little things that were nagging him last year," Perry said. "He's sharp right now. But he might not ever get back to two years ago. He's getting older now."

Turf rail moves in

Fair Grounds director of racing Mervin Muniz said the turf rail would be moved back to its innermost position on Saturday in preparation for the Explosive Bid. The rail has been out 25 feet for several weeks, forcing Fair Grounds to limit turf fields to eight runners.

That change has diminished the appeal of turf races here, but it has achieved its intended effect - freshening up the inner portion of the turf course.

"It looks pretty good out there, but that's the whole reason we did this," Muniz said.

* Friday's feature is a third-level turf allowance with a $75,000 claiming option that drew a short field of six. Bodyguard seeks his fifth straight victory but runs back on short rest after a hard-fought win.

* Cashier's Dream worked a half-mile in 51 seconds here Wednesday as she continues moving toward her 2002 debut. Trainer Steve Asmussen said he was considering pointing the 3-year-old filly to the Grade 3 La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs.

* Robin de Nest came out of Sunday's Pelleteri Handicap with a quarter crack, which helps explain his last-place finish in the race.