03/14/2002 1:00AM

McGaughey: Saarland's late start no big deal

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - Shug McGaughey acknowledges he is getting a later-than-planned start down the Kentucky Derby trail with his top 3-year-old Saarland, who will make his seasonal debut in Sunday's $200,000 Gotham at Aqueduct.

But, as McGaughey has watched the Kentucky Derby prep season unfold, he doesn't feel has a lot of catching up to do in order to become a legitimate Derby contender.

"It's not like I'm sitting around here sweating it out while this horse has gone to the head of the class and I'm still trying to get there," McGaughey said. "He'll be relatively fresh. We know Booklet and Harlan's Holiday both had two hard races. Repent, that race the other day had to be kind of hard on him and he's shipped twice."

Booklet and Harlan's Holiday finished one-two in both the Holy Bull Stakes and the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and are scheduled to meet again in Saturday's Florida Derby. Repent won the Risen Star Stakes before weaving his way through the stretch to win the Louisiana Derby last Saturday.

One reason Saarland has not fallen behind this year is because of what he accomplished last fall. Despite disappointing finishes in the Champagne and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Saarland rallied from eighth-place to win the nine-furlong Remsen Stakes here on Nov. 24. The Remsen has produced Kentucky Derby winners Go for Gin and Thunder Gulch.

McGaughey shipped Saarland to Gulfstream Park where he planned to run him once. But McGaughey was not happy with the track early in the meet and opted against running in the Fountain of Youth. Then an allowance race wouldn't fill with enough entries.

"Running in the Remsen allowed me to give him a little bit of time to develop over the winter without doing hard work with him,'' McGaughey said.

Since winning the Remsen, McGaughey has said his major goal for the spring was the $750,000 Wood Memorial on April 13. McGaughey said the Gotham is a prep to get him to the Wood.

"If he runs fine, finishes up fine, and I feel like that race will get him to the next one I'll be satisfied," McGaughey said.

Rum Splasher may join Gotham fray

Rum Splasher, winner of the Colin Stakes at Woodbine as a 2-year-old, is likely to run in the Gotham, trainer Pat Reynolds said Thursday. That would bring the field to seven.

Rum Splasher, a son of Bucksplasher, has run twice for Reynolds, including a second-place finish in a second-level allowance race on March 3.

Rum Splasher has two wins and a second from five starts. He began his career in Canada in the care of Sean Hall where he won his first two starts. He ended his 2-year-old season with a seventh-place finish in the Display Handicap before he was purchased privately by Reynolds and owner Christopher Connors.

Rum Splasher blew out three furlongs in 37.05 seconds Thursday on Belmont's training track.

"He blew out this morning like a stakes horse," Reynolds said. "We're not bear-hunting with a switchblade. In the event a couple of the other ones don't show up we could get a piece. It's worth taking a stab at it."

Schosberg has Wrangler connection

Trainer Richard Schosberg may rue the day he called Frank Stronach with a broodmare to sell.

It was 1994, and Schosberg saw his filly Fighting Jet suffer a career-ending injury in the Interborough Handicap. Heatherwood Farm, Schosberg's owner, was not in the breeding business at the time, but Schosberg knew Stronach was looking to build a broodmare band.

Stronach purchased Fighting Jet for between $60,000 and $70,000, according to Schosberg. Stronach eventually bred Fighting Jet to Carson City and the resulting foal was Wrangler, who has developed into the top sprinting colt on the East Coast.

Wrangler has won three straight races including the General George Handicap last month at Laurel Park beating, among others, the Schosberg-trained Affirmed Success. Those two rivals meet again in Saturday's Toboggan Handicap at Aqueduct.

Schosberg and Heatherwood Farm purchased Fighting Jet after her debut in Canada. Fighting Jet posted a record of 5-8-6 from 22 starts, including victories in the Just Smashing Stakes at The Meadowlands and the Spring Victory Stakes at Aqueduct. She earned $201,490.

"She was a good sprinter," Schosberg said. "She was by Copelan, she didn't want to go too far. She was a joy to train, no idiosyncrasies."

Lezcano punches Espinoza

Lorenzo Lezcano, the leading rider of the Aqueduct winter meet, punched jockey Jose Espinoza in the left eye following the running of Thursday's third race. Espinoza, who suffered a black eye, was forced to take off his remaining two mounts on the card.

Lezcano was aboard Borntoberegal, who drifted out nearing the wire of the third race while finishing second. Espinoza was aboard Painted Pistol, who clipped heels with Borntoberegal at the wire, almost unseating Espinoza. Painted Pistol finished fourth.

According to those with knowledge of the situation, Espinoza approached Lezcano in the jockey's room to tell him to be more careful and, according to Lezcano, Espinoza put his hand near Lezcano's neck. That's when Lezcano punched Espinoza.

The stewards planned to meet with both riders on Friday to determine what happened and if any fines or suspensions are warranted.