04/09/2003 12:00AM

At long last, Saarland set to race


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Saarland, one of last year's top Triple Crown prospects, returns to the races for the first time since November as a short-priced favorite in a Friday allowance race at Aqueduct.

Saarland has run only once since finishing 10th in the 2002 Kentucky Derby. He came out of the Kentucky Derby with ankle chips that required surgery and didn't make it back to the races until Nov. 15, when he won a mile allowance race at Aqueduct. He came out of that race with a grabbed quarter.

When Saarland's trainer, Shug McGaughey, got the hoof mended, the horse developed a quarter crack in the same foot while training at Gulfstream Park over the winter. The quarter crack, which was patched, prevented McGaughey from running Saarland in any of Florida's big handicap races.

McGaughey said Saarland, who is still wearing the patch, is now ready to run and that he was anxious for Friday's one-mile race to fill. The third-level allowance, the seventh race on a nine-race card, didn't draw a crowd as Saarland only faces four rivals.

Rain is in the forecast for Friday, but McGaughey said he is inclined to run Saarland on a dry or wet surface. The only time Saarland has run on a muddy track was in his career debut in August 2001 and he finished fourth.

"I would rather run on a fast track, but I'm anxious to get him going," said McGaughey, who trains Saarland for Cynthia Phipps. "Win, lose, or draw, at least it's a race that points him forward. As well as he ran last November, I wished I could have kept him going and used some of the Florida races, but that didn't work out. He's ready to go now."

A consistent workout pattern that has been in place since early March, suggests that Saarland is well prepared for his return.

Once McGaughey gets a race into Saarland, he said he would like to target some of New York's premier handicap races, such as the Brooklyn and Suburban, for the horse's summer campaign.

As a 2-year-old, Saarland won the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct. At 3, he finished second in the Grade 3 Gotham and fourth in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial.

John Velazquez rides Saarland, who drew post 4 and figures to be closer to the pace than usual because of the small field.

Lord Ofthe Thunder, who likes Aqueduct, and Harley Quinn, the likely pacesetter, are logical picks for second.