03/18/2002 1:00AM

Harlan has the right move


OLDSMAR, Fla. - It was a temptation to give Harlan's Holiday extra credit after his narrow losses in his first two starts this year. But it is equally tempting to slightly devalue his daylight victory in Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream.

Unlike the Holy Bull Stakes in January and the Fountain of Youth Stakes last month, when Harlan's Holiday's late running style was compromised by Booklet's uncontested leads, this time everything went his way.

The big question leading into the Florida Derby was whether the recently acquired Smooth Jazz would act as a rabbit for stablemate Nokoma, or whether he was too expensive a purchase to be put in the role. If Smooth Jazz was to be used as a rabbit, then Harlan's Holiday would finally get an ideal set up. And he, not Nokoma, would likely benefit, because Nokoma would have to suddenly improve at least eight lengths just to draw even with Harlan's Holiday.

But if Smooth Jazz didn't go out hard early, then Booklet would get loose again, and he would have the perfect opportunity to successfully stretch to nine furlongs.

Smooth Jazz gave us the answer right away. He took it to Booklet early and ran him right into the ground through a quarter in 22.47 seconds, 45.36, and 1:10.32. Harlan's Holiday, perfectly placed off that destructive pace, did what any half-decent horse would do. He inhaled the leaders around the far turn and went on to complete the job by 3 1/2 lengths.

There will be some who will think this dream trip deserves an asterisk. But they should remember this: The pace in the Kentucky Derby is always fast and contested. That means that in 6 1/2 weeks, Harlan's Holiday will again have the perfect opportunity to show what he can do.

A word about the Florida Derby runner-up, Blue Burner. He also benefited from the fast pace, but he improved with blinkers on and his deep rally did throw a brief scare into Harlan's Holiday turning for home. Blue Burner wound up being no match for the winner this time, but make no mistake, he is a colt moving in the right direction. And he is on the ever-shortening list of those who have a legitimate chance for success on the first Saturday in May.

Siphonic's flop

The breakout performance by Harlan's Holiday took on even greater importance Sunday after the flop by Siphonic in the San Felipe at Santa Anita. In a race where Siphonic had to take a step forward to maintain his position as one of the prime contenders for the Derby, he took a giant step backward. Siphonic had nothing in the stretch. He was outrun and out-gutted by Medaglia d'Oro, who was coming off a maiden win at Oaklawn and who, as we speak, still isn't even nominated to run in the Kentucky Derby.

Medaglia d'Oro showed more poise and ability than his scant record said he had a right to, and if he's healthy by the end of this month, he will certainly be made eligible to the Triple Crown at the final nomination stage. But those who thought Siphonic's race in the Santa Catalina in January wasn't strong despite the excuses, and those who were unsettled when his jockey, Jerry Bailey, investigated other options such as Repent, may have been on the right track.

Beware the grinder

The result of Sunday's Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct didn't do anything to threaten Harlan's Holiday's standing as star of the weekend, although I'm sure there are at least a few who would be quick to disagree.

There should be no debate over Mayakovsky, even though he ran very well to win by almost four off a 6 1/2-month layoff. He is very talented, though the way he drifted sharply late is cause for some pause. And like other very talented members of this 3-year-old crop - colts such as Came Home, Booklet and, yes, Johannesburg - Mayakovsky looks like one who would have serious trouble performing at peak efficiency at 1 1/4 miles. He really seems to be more of a top-class miler.

Where the disagreement may come is over Saarland. In the Gotham, his first start since he won the Remsen last November, Saarland was up against it against the loose-on-the-lead Mayakovsky. Many will probably say that Saarland is now positioned to be much tougher in longer races. Some may even put him right at the top of their Derby lists.

Well, I'm not buying it. The trouble with Saarland is the same trouble Repent has: He's a grinder. Look how long it took him to get past Parade of Music in the stretch run of the Gotham before he finally pulled clear for second money.

The Kentucky Derby is a closer's race, and Saarland is a closer. But like Repent, Saarland doesn't have that quick burst of speed to attack the front-runners. Grinders are the ones who get in trouble in the Derby. The ones who win the Derby are those who have that quick burst of speed from off the pace.

Like Harlan's Holiday.