04/04/2002 12:00AM

It's one step at a time for Equality

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Saturday's inaugural running of the $250,000 Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream Park is being billed as a Kentucky Derby prep, even though only one of the nine prospective starters, Tampa Bay Derby winner Equality, has any realistic chance of being at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

For 3-year-olds, the Aventura will be decided at 1 1/16 miles and highlights a 13-race program that also includes the $100,000 Artax Handicap and simulcast wagering on the Illinois Derby.

Equality is a late-bloomer who first began raising eyebrows when he won a preliminary allowance race by 16 1/2 lengths here on Feb. 11. Trained by Graham Motion for the colt's breeder, the Pin Oak Farm, Equality then gained national attention by rallying to an impressive 2 1/4-length decision in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby. The two victories earned Beyer Speed Figures of 98 and 103, which puts Equality on a par with the elite of the 3-year-old division.

Motion has downplayed any of the Kentucky Derby talk that has surrounded Equality since the Tampa Bay Derby victory. Motion is also avoiding the temptation to throw his star to the lions just yet in more traditional Derby preps such as the Blue Grass, Wood, or Arkansas Derby.

"We're running him here Saturday because it's the logical next step," said Motion. "Right now our main goal is to do what's best for the horse. Any talk or decisions about the Derby will wait until after the race.

"He's doing super, and I'm just looking for him to run back to his last race. If he does, I think he should be very competitive in the Aventura."

Ramon Dominguiez, who rode Equality to victory in the Tampa Bay Derby, will again have the assignment.

Leading the competition will be Charioteer, Marasca, Legislator, and Mountain Forum. The remainder of the field includes Strive, Major Focus, Raymond Springs, and Say No Maw.

Charioteer may prove the one to catch, coming off a fourth-place finish behind Repent after contesting the pace to midstretch in his two turn debut, the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. In his previous start, Charioteer showed his affinity for the Gulfstream surface with an easy 8 1/2-length allowance victory.

Marasca was outgamed by Straight Gin after forging to a short lead near midstretch in a two-turn preliminary allowance race on March 2. The performance earned him a career-best Beyer Figure of 96.

Mountain Forum, a stakes winner at 2 on grass, has proven his versatility with two straight main track wins, including the OBS Championship Stakes at Ocala Training Center.

Legislator has won two of three starts, both on grass, including a preliminary allowance race on March 24 in which he drew off with authority despite bearing out badly into the stretch. He was a slow-starting third in his only previous main track experience earlier in the meet.

Motion will also have the likely favorite in the Artax, with the speedy He's a Knockout figuring to lead five other older sprint specialists a merry chase in the seven-furlong dash.

He's a Knockout launched his 2002 campaign here March 13 with an easy victory over high-priced optional claiming and allowance company that earned him a Beyer Figure of 110. He had closed out his 3-year-old campaign by posting a Beyer of 114 winning Laurel's Sonny Hine Stakes.

"I'd rather have given him another week off, but it has been over three weeks, so it might be splitting hairs to say another week would make a difference," said Motion. "He's now run two solid numbers back to back and three overall, so I guess he's proven his earlier races were no flukes. And I think he'll just love seven furlongs."

Fappie's Notebook, winner of the Grade 3 Deputy Minister Handicap earlier this winter, is the horse He's a Knockout must beat, but Fappie's Notebook could be at the mercy of the pace and a racetrack that has not favored his come-from-behind style over the past several weeks.

Velasquez wins five

Jockey Cornelio Velasquez stole the show at Gulfstream Park on Thursday, winning five of the first six races on the nine-race card. Velasquez also won three races on Wednesday's program and now has 59 winners for the meet, putting him four behind Jorge Chavez for second place in the standings behind leading rider Edgar Prado.

Velasquez became the second jockey at this meet to win five on a card. Prado also turned the trick on Jan. 27.

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