01/15/2004 12:00AM

Here's low-down on top three in Holy Bull


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It is all too easy to look backward when handicapping, not forward. But when analyzing Saturday's Holy Bull Stakes, horseplayers will understandably be somewhat focused toward the future - to the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May.

Although the Holy Bull appears to lack the top-to-bottom depth that will likely be seen in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Florida Derby later this meet at Gulfstream Park, it does offer several exciting 3-year-old prospects, led by Silver Wagon, Second of June, and Friends Lake.

Of those, Friends Lake is the likely wiseguy horse in the Holy Bull. A winner of two of three starts, he appears to have bright future in front of him. What he may also have, unfortunately, are too many people on his bandwagon.

As a New York-bred coming off a victory in the Sleepy Hollow Stakes, he is all too reminiscent of Funny Cide. Funny Cide, like Friends Lake, was dominant in statebred stakes in New York, races that fell off the radar screen of most handicappers.

Then 2003 happened. Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby, and the two-three finishers from the 2002 Sleepy Hollow Stakes, Spite the Devil and Go Rockin Robin, also went on to win graded stakes last year.

My guess is that many horseplayers do not intend to miss out again. I know I found myself initially intrigued by Friends Lake. He, like Funny Cide, is bred more like a horse from Kentucky, being by A. P. Indy out of Antespend, a Grade 1 winner on dirt and turf.

He also ran faster than Funny Cide did in the Sleepy Hollow Stakes. He earned a 99 Beyer in winning that race in 2003 while Funny Cide earned an 89 in 2002.

Why the reluctance to play this horse? It is a year too late from a value perspective. On the heels of Funny Cide's success, many bettors that would not have touched a New York-bred last year will be playing one in 2004.

We saw a similar trend happen in the Kentucky Derby last year when Ten Most Wanted was made the third betting choice at 6.60-1 odds after winning the Illinois Derby, the same prep War Emblem used to win the Derby in 2002.

Ten Most Wanted developed into a very good horse, winning the Travers and Super Derby. But his odds on Derby day were about half those of Funny Cide, and he finished ninth with a troubled trip.

If Friends Lake were 5-1 odds in the Holy Bull, he would be an attractive play. His price is expected to be lower, however.

It is difficult for a young horse to go immediately from restricted statebred company to a graded stakes race. Funny Cide ran in this same race last year after winning the Sleepy Hollow, and finished a creditable fifth after racing wide from post 13. And the horses Friends Lake beat in the Sleepy Hollow in 2003 - Pa Pa Da and Rb's Glitter, do not appear on par with those Funny Cide defeated. Pa Pa Da finished eighth when tested in the Remsen, and Rb's Glitter has gone unplaced in two minor stakes since running third in the Sleepy Hollow.

Silver Wagon is a legitimate favorite. Although he was a lackluster third behind Second of June in the What a Pleasure Stakes last month, that was his first start in 3 1/2 months and he was trapped on the rail when in traffic for much of the race.

Jockey Jerry Bailey rode Silver Wagon, winner of the 2003 Hopeful, like the What a Pleasure was a prep, which, of course, it was. He handled him with more finesse than aggression, particularly in the final furlong. Silver Wagon was edged by a head for second by outsider Twice as Bad.

With a race behind him, Silver Wagon should improve. He took a big leap forward from his first career start to second race - going from a runner-up finish at Calder to a 7 1/2-length win at Saratoga - and he may display similar progress in his second race off a layoff.

The slight value of the race could be Second of June. Even though he rolled by five lengths in the What a Pleasure at Calder, the betting public at Gulfstream seems to discount horses in major stakes that have raced exclusively at Calder - as he has.

Ultimately, he may be passed up by other members of his generation, but as of mid-January in the Holy Bull Stakes, he still appears the main threat to Silver Wagon.