04/01/2004 1:00AM

If trip improves, 'Quinton' scores

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NEW YORK - Wow! What a big day of racing.

At Santa Anita, there are three stakes worth a total of $1,050,000, topped by one of the most important final preps for the Kentucky Derby, the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

At Oaklawn Park, there are two $500,000 stakes, the Apple Blossom and Oaklawn handicaps. The Grade 1 Apple Blossom marks the return of former Horse of the Year Azeri.

There are $600,000 worth of stakes at Hawthorne, most of which is made up by the $500,000 Illinois Derby. Two years ago, War Emblem used a victory in the Illinois Derby as a springboard to winning the Kentucky Derby.

There is $550,000 in stakes money up for grabs at Gulfstream Park, with the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap and the $250,000 Aventura Stakes.

At Keeneland, there is only one stakes on the card, but it's a beauty. The Grade 1, $500,000 Ashland features a battle between champion Halfbridled and the undefeated sensation Madcap Escapade.

Finally, the main event at Aqueduct, the $200,000 Excelsior Breeders' Cup Handicap, may be overshadowed by some of the races listed above, yet it has lured last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Funny Cide.

There is a lot to choose from, but these are the three races I settled on:

Santa Anita Derby

There is precious little early speed in this race. Lucky Pulpit could flash some foot, but I can't take him after his non-effort last time out. Wimbledon and St Averil both demonstrated some early foot in the past, but both improved once they settled into off-the-pace running styles, and I can't see them changing that now. So, because of the lack of speed, I'm taking Quintons Gold Rush to upset.

Quintons Gold Rush disputed the early pace with Wimbledon when he crushed that opponent two starts back, and he was close to a hot pace last time out in the San Rafael, a race in which he had a few excuses for his fourth-place finish. For one, he was making his first start in nearly two months, and may have been a bit short. Quintons Gold Rush was also severely compromised by an outside post. He was caught five wide on the first turn, and four wide while making a move on the far turn, and yet was still in there punching in midstretch. With a better trip, and he should get a favorable one Saturday, Quintons Gold Rush can manage the same kind of breakthrough some of his contemporaries have made.

Apple Blossom

I like Wild Spirit, and I'm more afraid of Island Fashion than I am of Azeri. I question what can now be expected of Azeri at age 6, especially since she is coming back after her Beyer Speed Figures declined noticeably late last year. As for Island Fashion, her game second against males last time out in the Big Cap is a performance no one in this field can top. But, it was just the kind of draining effort that could cause her to regress Saturday.

As for Wild Spirit, she was most impressive winning three of four starts last year, all stakes, and probably should have been 4 for 4. Her one loss was a nose defeat in a Grade 1 at Saratoga at a time when everyone else from her barn ran like they were desperately ill. Wild Spirit is backed by one of the best layoff trainers in the business, Bobby Frankel. She has an acceleration that will leave this field breathless in the stretch, and she may be third choice in the betting.

Ashland

There may only be five in this race, but it's a quality five. Lots of 10-horse fields are two-horse betting races, but this five-horse field is really a five-horse betting race.

I've been a big fan of Halfbridled since the moment I saw her career debut, so much so that it almost pains me to say this: I'm picking Madcap Escapade.

Madcap Escapade was sensational winning her first three career starts at Gulfstream, and we still have no idea what her limits may be. When such a horse also has complete control of the pace, that's trouble, and there is no one in the Ashland field who can challenge Madcap Escapade for the early lead. And, although this is Madcap Escapade's first attempt at two turns, she couldn't have picked a better track for it than naturally speed-favoring Keeneland.