02/26/2004 1:00AM

Minister Eric needs a break to get in gate


ARCADIA, Calif. - Even though Minister Eric finished second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October, his credentials do not guarantee him a berth in Saturday's $100,000 at Santa Anita.

Scheduled for about 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside turf course, the Baldwin Stakes drew 14 3-year-olds but will be limited to 12 starters. In order of preference, Roi Charmant and Minister Eric are on the also-eligible list but still might find their way into the race.

Despite rain earlier in the week, no rain was expected late Thursday through Saturday, leaving the possibility that the race could be run on turf. If so, trainer Bob Baffert said Teton Forest is not likely to start. That would put Roi Charmant in the race. One more horse would need to withdraw to give Minister Eric a berth.

Minister Eric has one win in five starts and earnings of $387,920. He was left on the also-eligible list because he is only a maiden winner and therefore would carry 114 pounds. When the race oversubscribed, a random draw was conducted among the nine colts and geldings who were assigned 114 pounds. Only seven spots were available.

Minister Eric has not run since the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He emerged from the race with sore shins and had bone chips removed from an ankle and knee. In the Breeders' Cup, he finished 2 1/2 lengths behind Action This Day, who is also trained by Richard Mandella.

At one point, Mandella thought Minister Eric would score his first stakes win. "I thought he would win on the turn," Mandella said. "But in the corner of my eye, I saw Action This Day's colors coming through the field. I said, 'Come on boys.' Eric ran a good race."

If Minister Eric starts, Mandella would be using the race as a prep to more important 3-year-old stakes over longer distances in coming weeks. "He's got speed, but we've always wanted to stretch him out," Mandella said. "I think we have a good chance, but I don't have him jazzed up to run in a sprint."

There are talented sprinters capable of winning the Baldwin, but some do not have turf experience.

Saint Afleet and Don'tsellmeshort, first and fourth in the Sunshine Millions Dash on Jan. 24, are making their first starts on turf.

Gwaihir is winless in two starts in the United States but was a stakes winner on turf in France last year.

Rush Into Heaven makes his first start for trainer Doug O'Neill. Last fall, he won the one-mile Pinjara Stakes on turf for trainer Paul Aguirre.