03/06/2002 1:00AM

Looking for this year's Monarchos

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LAUREL, Md. - Every winter, every racing fan keeps at least one eye on Gulfstream Park, watching for the emergence of any exciting new faces on the road to the Kentucky Derby.

Last year we watched Monarchos win his maiden at Gulfstream, followed by an impressive allowance win, and then a dramatic wide run around the final turn to take the Florida Derby. His Beyers progressed from 95 to 103 to 105. And, after a slight regression in the Wood Memorial, he went on to repeat his explosive Florida Derby move in the Derby.

Is there another Monarchos in south Florida this winter? The short answer is almost certainly "no." But a somewhat longer answer might be worth pursuing.

Booklet and Harlan's Holiday lead the Florida Derby contenders. They finished one-two in both the Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth. But the Kentucky Derby prospects of Booklet don't look promising. He has only one way to run, on the front end, as he has shown in all seven of his lifetime starts. He may well have distance limitations, and he looks "bouncy" after two big Beyers of 101 and 104 in all-out efforts after a layoff.

Harlan's Holiday appears more promising, especially if he finds a scenario in which he doesn't have to do all the work in running down a lone speed horse like Booklet. With a 99 Beyer back in November, he looks less likely to bounce when he stretches out to 1 1/8 miles in the Florida Derby on March 16.

A few weeks ago, Stephentown was all the buzz after a visually impressive against-the-bias win on Jan. 9. But his less-than-spectacular Beyer of 86 had to give one pause. The buzz stopped suddenly after his mediocre performance in the Fountain of Youth, in which his Beyer improved only to 90. For a horse who had already run a 96 as a 2-year-old in November, Stephentown seems to be progressing rather slowly.

Trainer Nick Zito is always looking for a good 3-year-old. And this year he has been bringing along his prospects very carefully, one step at a time. Zito's prospects include:

* High Star, who caught everyone's eye on Jan. 26, winning an allowance race with a 92 Beyer. But he bounced badly in his next start, losing by a nose in a weak field, and earning a dismal figure of 72.

* American Style, who looks more interesting than High Star at this point. After a brutally difficult trip on Jan. 9, he came back to win an allowance race in his first start for Zito. His Beyer: 94.

* Straight Gin, who emerged strongly just last Saturday. He has improved steadily from a 69 Beyer to an 88 when he was loose on the lead Feb. 2, and then up to a 97 earned in less-than-ideal circumstances on March 2.

Gulfstream has produced a number of other possible prospects.

Grey Beard had a hard race off a layoff (88 Beyer), and then, understandably, raced poorly in the Fountain of Youth. Speed Hunter had a similar experience, running a huge 103 Beyer after a two-month layoff, and regressing to a 90 in the Fountain. Blue Burner has developed steadily under Bill Mott's patient handling. He ran an ordinary winning figure of 77 after a layoff, and then finished a good third in the Fountain of Youth with a 95 Beyer.

Nokoma ran an 81 in the Holy Bull, and improved to a 91 in a recent allowance win, but was all-out in a visually less-than-impressive performance. Political Attack wired a Calder field on a speed-favoring day, so you had to be skeptical of his chances in the Fountain of Youth. But he ran well, his Beyer dipping only from 95 to 92. Finally, Monthir has run Beyers of 88-97-89 at Gulfstream, and ran gamely in his loss to Nokoma on Feb. 23.

Trainer Shug McGaughey had two prospects in Florida, but has had no luck at all. Maybry's Boy, quite predictably, proved he is not yet up to the longer distances, and has now been sent away for a full physical. And Saarland never found an allowance race he could use as a prep for the Gotham.

So, have we seen another Monarchos in south Florida this winter? Probably not. But the sudden rise of two other youngsters should warn us against any final judgments at this still-early date. They are:

* Ethan Man, who crushed a strong allowance field at six furlongs on Feb. 2. His Beyer was an impressive 100. Can a son of Glitterman stretch out successfully to classic distances? His connections intend to find out.

* Marasca had a nice maiden win on Jan. 12 (a hard-earned 87 Beyer), but then a wide trip around two turns set him back to a 71. Then, after a month layoff, he jumped up to a figure of 96.

This kind of erratic, unpredictable form should remind us that young, developing 3-year-olds can be full of surprises. And that should make next Saturday's Florida Derby a great race to watch.