04/10/2002 12:00AM

Harlan's Holiday takes owner right to top

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Jack Wolf, the owner of Harlan's Holiday, is a man with a sense of humor. When talking about his days as a tight end for the Murray State University football team, he gives a hearty laugh when asked whether that was during the era of leather helmets without face masks.

"Actually," said Wolf, 52, "I was the career leader in receptions for a few years there," having caught 105 passes in the years 1968-71.

But ask him whether he also led in receiving yards, he is quick with this quip: "After I caught the ball, I didn't get very far."

Wolf also is a man with a sense of wonder. After all, here he is, less than two years after making a serious foray into the world of owning Thoroughbreds, and now he has the consensus favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

, the pride of the Starlight Stable owned by Wolf and his wife, Laurie, will make his final start before the May 4 Derby on Saturday as the favorite in the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.

Wolf's meteoric rise to prominence as a horse owner "sort of doesn't make a lot of sense," he admitted.

Born and raised in Louisville, where he attended St. Xavier High School, Wolf long has been a fan of racing and the Kentucky Derby. After getting a master's degree in economics in 1973 from Murray, a small school in western Kentucky, Wolf moved to the Atlanta area, where he has lived ever since.

About 20 years ago, he dabbled in cheap claimers with friends but was too busy with his job as a stockbroker and with raising his two older children - Lauren, now 22, and Bryan, 20 - to get heavily involved. Several years ago, he reentered the business, again as a minor partner in a stable managed by Jim Shircliff of Louisville. Among the horses in which he owned a share were Cautious, Pockets, Baltic Desire, and Executor, the last of whom was named Claimer of the Year in Kentucky in 1999.

Wolf began his own money-management business in 1991, building it into something successful enough to afford larger investments in horses. Less than two years ago, after going horse shopping with trainer Ken McPeek at the Fasig-Tipton Sales in Lexington, Wolf paid $97,000 for an Ohio-bred Harlan colt.

Little did he suspect what would transpire. Trained by McPeek, Harlan's Holiday has earned more than $1 million with five wins and four seconds from nine career starts.

The most enjoyable aspect for Wolf has been sharing all of the colt's successes with family and friends, including his 4-year-old daughter, Elinor. At the races, he and Laurie - a northwest Louisiana native who is his second wife - often are accompanied by Laurie's mother, Jennifer Moffett from Texas, and longtime friends and business associates such as John Rose, Rolf Norvel, Artie Gower Jr., and Barry Berkelhammer. Even for something as mundane as a morning workout at Churchill, Wolf often has a half-dozen or so friends in tow.

The entire scenario, said Wolf, seems surreal.

"I'm not embarrassed by the fact, but I'm totally surprised to have a horse of this quality so soon," said Wolf, who turns 53 on Kentucky Derby Day. "I'd be lying if I said I ever expected to have one this soon at this level. The emotion is more like, as Kenny keeps saying, 'I'm pinching myself.' "

Posse highly impressive in career debut

Trainer Steve Asmussen might well have unveiled the favorite for the Three Chimneys Juvenile, run on the Kentucky Derby undercard, on Wednesday when Posse romped to an eye-opening 13 1/2-length victory in the third race.

"He was what we thought he was," said Asmussen. "And that is, the best 2-year-old in the barn. We ran him early here to get a race in him before the Three Chimneys. It was a beautiful race."

Posse, a Silver Deputy colt who was making his first start, is owned by Bill Heiligbrodt, who paid $115,000 for him last September. Heiligbrodt's young horses are prepared at a Texas training facility by Ted Keefer, the brother of the late trainer Jim Keefer, with whom Heiligbrodt formerly had horses. Jim Keefer, who was well known in Kentucky for winning with 2-year-olds, won the WHAS-TV Stakes - the former name of the Three Chimneys Juvenile - twice in the early 1990's.

Posse paid $11 after finishing 4 1/2 furlongs in 51.43 seconds.

California dreamin' in Commonwealth

The $250,000 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sunday has a decidedly California flavor, with speedsters Aldebaran and D'wildcat having arrived to face Binthebest, Dancing Missile, Orientate, and Prospector's Gift in the seven-furlong, Grade 2 race.

Aldebaran was an impressive winner of an upper-level allowance race last time out at Santa Anita, in his first start on dirt. finished second to Crafty C.T. in a March 2 allowance at Santa Anita, his first start since taking last year's Swale Stakes. He is trained by Bob Hess Jr.

Aldebaran is one of six horses at Keeneland being supervised for trainer Bobby Frankel by Jose Cuevas, the celebrated exercise rider to the stars. Cuevas drove from Los Angeles to Lexington, leaving Friday and arriving Monday afternoon. "America is a beautiful country," he said.

The joys of flying

Trainer Jim Cassidy, who has Ocean Sound in the Blue Grass Stakes, was the smartest-dressed person Wednesday morning at Keeneland. But not by design. All Cassidy had were the slacks and sport coat he was wearing, since his luggage was lost while traveling Tuesday night from California.

"At least I can go to the dinner Friday night," Cassidy said of Keeneland's Blue Grass dinner. "Look at poor Jim over there. He can't go like that." Cassidy, smiling, nodded toward co-owner Jim Ford, who was wearing a black sweater. Ford's luggage also was lost.

Ocean Sound most recently finished second in Oaklawn Park's Rebel Stakes. Cassidy said he decided to run Ocean Sound on Saturday in the Blue Grass, rather than the Arkansas Derby, because of the smaller field at Keeneland, and because the field in the Blue Grass might give Cassidy a better line on how Ocean Sound stacks up with other top Kentucky Derby prospects.

"We want to take him off the pace, and we didn't want to go around a 12-horse field," Cassidy said. "There's only supposed to be six or seven here. The field size makes more sense."

Cassidy is employing red-hot Eddie Delahoussaye on Ocean Sound.

"If anybody can get a mile and an eighth out of this horse, Eddie can," Cassidy said.

What about Bob

Bob's Image is running in the Blue Grass in part because his owner, the syndicate West Point Thoroughbreds, also has Ethan Man in next week's $325,000 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. Dallas Stewart trains Bob's Image, Patrick Byrne has Ethan Man.

Bob's Image finished fifth in the Louisiana Derby in his last start. The Lexington was considered a possible spot for Bob's Image, but Stewart said Terry Finley, who runs West Point, "kind of wants to keep them split up." Bob's Image has good early speed, and Keeneland favors horses with his style.

"I think this horse will like the racetrack," Stewart said. "And it's a big purse. But we've got no Derby aspirations, win, lose, or draw."

* Chief's Hogan posted the highest win mutuel of the meet so far when he captured the fourth race at 44-1. Jon Court was aboard for trainer Harvey Vanier.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman