01/15/2004 12:00AM

Let the Derby preps begin

Master David, here with Humberto Gomez in the saddle, finished second in the Remsen after winning a maiden race in England. He joined trainer Bobby Frankel's barn last month.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - They are mere teases, these two preliminary Kentucky Derby prep races that will be run on opposite coasts Saturday. Although it is certainly possible that viable Derby prospects could emerge from the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park or the Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita, the prep races of considerably greater importance are still a few weeks down the Derby trail.

In south Florida, where trainer Nick Zito holds easily the strongest hand for the 130th Derby, which will be run May 1 at Churchill Downs, the Holy Bull is a prelude to what figures to be a season of high drama for Zito. El Prado Rob, one of five Derby possibilities that Zito has stabled at the Palm Meadows training center near Boynton Beach, Fla., will run in the Holy Bull while his more accomplished stablemates await their turns later on.

"Right now, I'm training them in what I would call a 'slow' way, for lack of a better word," said Zito.

Three of the Zito 3-year-olds concluded their 2003 seasons by winning major races: Birdstone won the Champagne, Eurosilver the Breeders' Futurity, and The Cliff's Edge the Kentucky Jockey Club. The fifth Zito prospect, a Kris S. colt named Royal Assault, was a sharp winner at Gulfstream last Saturday in his career debut.

Zito believes that keeping his horses from racing against each other will not be very difficult. The Cliff's Edge most likely is headed for the new bonus series of 3-year-old races at Oaklawn Park; the others could be spread out not only in stakes such as the Fountain of Youth and Hutcheson Stakes (both on Feb. 14), but also in a variety of allowance races.

Three allowance races with two-other- than conditions are in the Gulfstream condition book (the latest on Feb. 14), and Zito is acutely aware - not to mention happy - that both Birdstone and Eurosilver are eligible for those races.

"There are plenty of spots," he said. "The main thing I want to avoid is bringing any of them back in something that's too tough. I really don't know about the Fountain of Youth for either Birdstone or Eurosilver. I want to make sure that nobody gets his head jerked in when it's not called for."

Zito said he is indifferent in regard to the distance of the races in which his stars will return. "All I really need is one stretchout race, one good two-turn race, for them before they run in the big one," he said. "They'll get that. I'm not going to be concerned about fitness at all. It's more a mental thing, where

I bring them along the right way and keep them on the right path."

Besides the Zito contingent, at least a few other serious Derby prospects are waiting in the wings in Florida, most notably Read the Footnotes, Tapit, and Sir Oscar.

Read the Footnotes, runaway winner of the Remsen, continues to progress toward the Fountain of Youth while training at Palm Meadows for Rick Violette.

Tapit, winner of the Laurel Futurity, arrived early Wednesday at Palm Meadows after an overnight van trip from trainer Michael Dickinson's Tapeta Farm in northeast Maryland. Dickinson's assistant, Joan Wakefield, said a specific race has not yet been selected for Tapit.

Sir Oscar, unbeaten in six starts, continues to train steadily at Calder for Manny Azpurua. He is scheduled to return in the Fountain of Youth.

An unofficial and perhaps incomplete list of 3-year-olds who are just one breakout race away from major-contender status includes Blushing Indian, Tiger Heart, Shaniko, Frisky Spider, and whoever runs well in the Holy Bull.

As for California, the 3-year-old crop is not as deep, although Action This Day, upset winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and Lion Heart, unbeaten winner of the Hollywood Futurity, rank high on almost everyone's Derby list.

Trainer Richard Mandella had hoped to bring back Action This Day in the Santa Catalina but was not completely satisfied with how the colt had trained in recent weeks. Mandella is now targeting the Sham Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile race on Feb. 8, to be followed by the March 14 San Felipe Stakes.

Lion Heart is not scheduled to race again until the one-mile San Rafael Stakes on March 6, said trainer Patrick Biancone. If all goes well for Action This Day and Lion Heart, they could meet April 3 in the main California prep race, the Santa Anita Derby.

Master David, now trained by Bobby Frankel, and St Averil, the Hollywood Futurity runner-up, are the most logical candidates to emerge from the Santa Catalina as hot prospects.

Meanwhile, a number of other fringe candidates have set up shop in the Midwest.

At Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where the Triple Crown trail leads through the March 7 Louisiana Derby, the leading prospects are Cuvee, who is on the mend from arthroscopic ankle surgery, and Fire Slam, second to Mr. Jester in the Delta Jackpot.

At Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Ark., where the April 10 Arkansas Derby culminates a series of preps, the top names are Mr. Jester, Smarty Jones, and Tiger Hunt.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman