02/02/2004 12:00AM

Mandella's two champions head Triple Crown nominees

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Action This Day and Halfbridled, the winners of the Breeders' Cup races for 2-year-olds last October and subsequent champions of their respective divisions, head the list of 434 to this year's Triple Crown, it was announced Monday by Triple Crown Productions.

The Triple Crown consists of the May 1 Kentucky Derby, May 15 Preakness Stakes, and June 5 Belmont Stakes. If a horse can sweep all three, Triple Crown sponsor Visa will pay a $5 million bonus to the horse's owner.

Action This Day, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and last week was named the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male of 2003, is scheduled to make his 2004 debut in Sunday's $75,000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita.

Halfbridled, the 2-year-old filly champion who completed an unbeaten season with her victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, is scheduled to make her 2004 debut in the $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 15. She is one of nine fillies nominated to the Triple Crown. The others include A.P. Adventure and Ashado.

Both Action This Day and Halfbridled are trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, who has never won a Triple Crown race.

This is the first, but least-expensive, of several stages at which horses can be nominated to the Triple Crown. These early nominations cost $600 each. There is a late nomination stage on March 27, but the price jumps to $6,000 at that point. And there is a stiff supplementary fee for those who wait until the eve of the Triple Crown, though anyone with a top prospect is usually paid up and eligible long before then.

The total number of nominees is just shy of last year's record 446, and though it included most of the major prospects for this year's Derby, there was one glaring absence. No horses from Sheikh Mohammed's powerful Godolphin Racing Inc. were nominated.

The Derby has been a stated quest of Sheikh Mohammed. He has tried in recent years to bring 3-year-olds over for the Derby from winter quarters in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, but without success. Godolphin had 20 nominees in 2001, 17 in 2002, and 19 last year. Godolphin's best American-based 2-year-old last year, Norfolk Stakes winner Rulers Court, suffered an undisclosed injury after returning to Dubai last November.

Godolphin is expected to make a couple of late nominees by the March 27 deadline, according to Ed Seigenfeld, the executive vice president of Triple Crown Productions.

Todd Pletcher leads all trainers with a whopping 35 nominees. He led last year with 28 nominees. Pletcher, like Mandella, has never won a Triple Crown race. Nick Zito, a two-time Derby winner, has 22 nominees, including Eurosilver, who is scheduled to make his 2004 debut in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park on Wednesday. Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas have 19 nominees each, though neither has any highly ranked prospects at the moment.

There are 20 horses nominated from overseas. Trainer Dermot Weld has 10 nominees and Aidan O'Brien has nine.

Michael Tabor, who uses several trainers, including Pletcher and O'Brien, has 13 nominations, mostly in partnerships, the most among owners.

A.P. Indy has the most offspring nominated, with 16.