03/03/2005 1:00AM

Huge racing day but no big picture

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NEW YORK - If you've been taking a long winter's nap through the 2005 racing season so far, it's time to wake up. You can get caught up pretty quickly, because there is more important stakes racing around the country this Saturday afternoon than there was in all of January and February.

Between stakes-stuffed cards at Gulfstream and Santa Anita, and Afleet Alex's surprise appearance in the Mountain Valley at Oaklawn, there is practically an embarrassment of attractions in four different divisions: the 3-year-olds, 3-year-old fillies, handicap horses, and turf milers.

With just nine weeks until the Kentucky Derby, things begin to get serious as Declan's Moon and Afleet Alex make their season debuts. Declan's Moon, trying to become the first 2-year-old champion since Spectacular Bid in 1979 to win the roses, starts his 3-year-old campaign in the Santa Catalina. Afleet Alex, who had been expected to wait for the Rebel at Oaklawn on March 19, will instead have an additional tune-up in the six-furlong Mountain Valley, meaning he will have the more historically successful regimen of three rather than two Derby preps.

You know it's an extraordinary day of 3-year-old racing when the Fountain of Youth is perhaps only the fourth-most interesting race of the day. The Grade 2 , $300,000 event has drawn no one more famous than High Fly or Bandini, but the $150,000 Swale attracted the unbeaten speedball Lost in the Fog, who will try to stretch out to seven furlongs.

The same kind of thing has happened with Gulfstream's two races for 3-year-old fillies. The longer Bonnie Miss would normally be the more important event, but the seven-furlong Forward Gal is more compelling because of Maddalena, who like Lost in the Fog is both unbeaten and freakishly quick.

As for the elder set, the Gulfstream Park Handicap came up a little light, but the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap is a compelling matchup between the division's early-season leaders: Saint Liam, who comes off a very impressive drubbing of Roses in May in the Donn, takes on Rock Hard Ten, the narrow local winner of the Malibu and Strub.

That's a Grade 1 showdown, and it comes half an hour after an even larger collection of Grade 1 winners - seven of them in a 10-horse field - in the Grade 1 Kilroe Mile, including Breeders' Cup winners Singletary and Cajun Beat, as well as Leroidesanimaux, Meteor Storm, and Musical Chimes.

The only thing that could make it all better would be if it were possible to see and bet on more of this spectacular day of racing than is possible under the dysfunctional jumble of competing television programming and account-wagering services.

There's an hour of racing on ABC from 5 to 6 p.m. Eastern, but that's only a Derby-oriented roundup of the Fountain of Youth, Santa Catalina, and Swale a couple of hours before the Kilroe and Big Cap, which could and should have been run earlier. People who rely on Television Games Network will as usual be unable to see the Gulfstream and Santa Anita races. Some New Yorkers are out of luck starting at 6 p.m. Eastern when the in-home cable channels pull the plug on racing entirely. A few people will get to see and bet on everything by cobbling together some assortment of multiple betting companies and broadcasts, while others have given up trying.

"I was once a customer of Ebet-USA, and when they lost the Gulfstream and Santa signals on the Internet, I switched to TVG," a frustrated magazine editor from Washington wrote me this week. "Then [Magna] pulled Santa Anita and Gulfstream away again. When the Hollywood Park season ended, I went into a racing hiatus. It was the first time in 10 years that I haven't played Gulfstream. To fill the time, I have been playing poker. Sad. I can't be the only person to whom this fact set applies."

Magna Entertainment, which owns Gulfstream and Santa Anita, has put together two truly spectacular cards of racing for Saturday. It could have been the best racing telecast of the year, but instead Magna spent its time and resources buying a national broadcast of the Sunshine Millions, statebred races in which a national audience has no compelling interest. The racing Saturday couldn't be any better, but until the industry begins to cooperate and make better decisions on showcasing its product, too many people will be playing poker instead of horses.