03/29/2004 12:00AM

Lion Heart hits road

Lion Heart (above) is headed to Keeneland, while juvenile champ Action This Day may run in the Santa Anita Derby.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The complexion of Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby changed significantly on Monday following either key workouts or audibles called by several trainers. Most notably, Lion Heart will skip the race to point for the following week's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Action This Day is now under consideration for the Santa Anita Derby, and Rock Hard Ten and Wimbledon served notice with sharp morning drills that they will be the ones to beat in the Santa Anita Derby, a Grade 1, 1 1/8-mile race.

It was a warm, summerlike day at Santa Anita on Monday, and because of the rising heat, trainer Patrick Biancone decided to take Lion Heart to the track after the first renovation break, at 6:40 a.m. Lion Heart worked a moderate five furlongs in 1:01.40. Following the drill, Biancone said Lion Heart would wait for the April 10 Blue Grass at Keeneland. Biancone cited as reasons his belief that Lion Heart would benefit by more time following a grueling comeback race in the San Rafael on March 6, and the usually speed-favoring surface at Keeneland.

"I don't want him to bounce," Biancone said. "He ran a little too hard in his comeback. The extra week will be good for him. I was happy with the work. It went well. It wasn't explosive. It was good. We don't want explosive. We know he can go fast."

Action This Day, last year's champion 2-year-old colt, suffered a gash to his right hind leg in the San Felipe Stakes on March 14, and missed several days of training. That led trainer Richard Mandella to theorize the Santa Anita Derby would come up too soon; he said the Blue Grass would likely be the next start for Action This Day. But after returning from Dubai on Sunday night, Mandella was at Santa Anita on Monday and said Action This Day was doing so well he was considering running him in the Santa Anita Derby after all.

If Action This Day runs, that would cause a ripple effect among jockeys. Mandella told agent Jim Pegram, who represents jockey David Flores, to wait until Tuesday before making another commitment for the Santa Anita Derby. Flores, the regular rider for Action This Day, is the leading candidate to ride Rock Hard Ten, according to Jason Orman, who trains Rock Hard Ten. Gary Stevens rode the undefeated Rock Hard Ten to victories in the horse's first two starts, but he is now riding in France under contract to trainer Andre Fabre, for whom Stevens has a commitment on Sunday in Paris. Stevens can't make it work to be in both places, according to his agent, Craig O'Bryan.

"The best we could do was get him on a 5:20 p.m. flight Saturday, which would have gotten him to Paris at 2 p.m. Sunday," O'Bryan said. "It would be an insult if Gary didn't show up for his first big stake there. I wish he could be here, but the logistics aren't going to happen."

Rock Hard Ten's work on Monday was sensational. He came out just before Lion Heart and effortlessly cruised five furlongs under former jockey Corey Black in 58.40 seconds, which equaled the second-best time of 42 at the distance.

Rock Hard Ten walked on and off the track like a seasoned veteran, and cooled out quickly after the drill.

"He's got the mind to handle it," Orman said. "He's a really smart horse. Very professional. That's kind of why we're at this point. I'm very happy. If he comes out of the work good, we'll definitely go."

Wimbledon, the Louisiana Derby winner, also worked well. He came out late in the morning, around 9:25, when it was considerably warmer. With exercise rider Dana Barnes up, he zipped five furlongs in 59.20 seconds.

Imperialism, the upset winner of the San Rafael, was originally scheduled to work Monday at Hollywood Park, but trainer Kristin Mulhall instead gave him a strong gallop and said she planned a short, sharp drill on Wednesday.

"I wanted to blow him out a quarter-mile or three furlongs a few days before the race, so I didn't want to work him today," Mulhall said Monday. "He two-minute-licked instead."

Rafael Becerra, the trainer of St Averil, was upset Sunday when the San Felipe runner-up worked a fast five furlongs in 58.40 seconds, but on Monday he said St Averil "pulled up good" and was a likely starter in the Santa Anita Derby. St Averil on Sunday worked in company with the unraced runner Vencer, and was unable to catch Vencer despite jockey Tyler Baze cracking St Averil three or four times with the whip.

Also Sunday, at Hollywood, Quintons Gold Rush flew through six furlongs in 1:11.40. The time was the best of 12 at the distance.

Others expected for the Santa Anita Derby are Castledale, who was sixth in the San Rafael; Lucky Pulpit, eighth in the San Rafael; and Totally Platinum, who was sixth in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields. Trainer Bob Baffert said Joe Steiner would ride Totally Platinum, who worked six furlongs in 1:13 on Sunday.

- additional reporting by Brad Free