03/15/2002 12:00AM

More pressure on Saarland than Siphonic


PHOENIX - Many people worship success, but what they are really rooting for is failure. So the naysayers will be out in force, ready to put forks in Siphonic and Saarland as they reappear on the Derby trail Sunday in the San Felipe at Santa Anita and the Gotham at Aqueduct.

After Siphonic lost the Santa Catalina Stakes on Jan. 19, a race in which he stumbled badly at the start and never could catch Labamta Babe, he went from Derby favorite to the horse everybody wanted to knock.

He came out of the race with a stiff neck. Some clockers reported he was not training well. Some trainers said Siphonic did not look comfortable. All the while, trainer Dave Hofmans stuck with the plan he had announced in December, that Siphonic would get a break after the Santa Catalina, then run in the San Felipe and April 6 Santa Anita Derby prior to the May 4 Kentucky Derby.

Asked if he was surprised at how many people seemed to back away from Siphonic after his Santa Catalina loss, Hofmans said, "It doesn't take much. That's just the way it is."

He's in a position in the San Felipe to put things right. While some may say there's a sense of urgency for Siphonic to run very well, it's not really critical. He's not coming off an injury or an extended layoff. And while Hofmans surely wants to see him run well, the Kenucky Derby is still seven weeks away. A strong effort here sets him up for a stronger run in the Santa Anita Derby. Time really isn't working against him - as long as he runs well Sunday.

"I know he's a good horse and he'll put in a good effort," Hofmans said. "We're right where we want to be. He's worked a couple of seven-eighths, gone three-quarters. He's about like he was before the [Hollywood] Futurity," which he won.

Siphonic completed his serious training for the San Felipe on Wednesday morning, with a sharp half-mile workout from the gate in 47 seconds at Santa Anita. The time was the best of 34 at the distance.

Hofmans worked Siphonic from the gate because of the colt's poor start in the Santa Catalina. Hofmans said he has schooled Siphonic at the gate six times since the Santa Catalina, but that this was the first time Siphonic had worked out of the gate.

It also doesn't hurt that the San Felipe didn't come up extremely tough. Came Home won the San Rafael and awaits the Santa Anita Derby. The promising Sunday Break is headed out of town for Neil Drysdale, and the horse last year everyone expected to be here, Officer, is just getting cranked up.

That leaves the Sham one-two finishers, U S S Tinosa and Puerto Banus, as the main challengers.

U S S Tinosa looked super winning the Sham, and it's encouraging that trainer Jerry Hollendorfer opted to stay in Southern California for this instead of returning to his home base in northern California for last weekend's El Camino Real Derby. Puerto Banus is a big, lumbering animal who acts as though he will run all day. But at this distance he is probably vulnerable to a more explosive animal such as Siphonic or U S S Tinosa.

Late start for Saarland

There's more urgency for Saarland. Unlike Siphonic, who has run twice since December, Saarland hasn't run at all since winning the Remsen in November. It's not for lack of effort, mind you. Trainer Shug McGaughey wanted to run Saarland in a Gulfstream Park allowance earlier this winter, but a race never filled.

Saarland won 2 of 5 starts as a juvenile last year. He won his maiden going a one-turn mile at Belmont in early September before finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Champagne and eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Saarland's biggest win came around two turns in the nine-furlong Remsen. Sunday, Saarland will have to negotiate a one-turn mile in the Grade 3 Gotham.

"I know it's not his game," McGaughey said. "He won't show much speed. I'm hoping he relaxes and comes with one good run through the stretch. I just want him to give me something to get him to the next race."

That would be the nine-furlong Wood Memorial on April 13.

In other words, while Saarland needs to run well he doesn't have to win. He needs to run well to springboard into the Wood, which would hopefully have him 100 percent for the Derby. Time is playing a bit against him - McGaughey can't afford to have Saarland be dull here. That would put him behind the eight ball.

So if Saarland is vulnerable (at around 7-5 no less) off a layoff going just a mile, who can take advantage? Mayakovsky is fast, but he has issues too. Sure, he was very impressive as a 2-year-old in New York last summer for Patrick Biancone, but he came out of his runner-up try to Came Home in the Grade 1 Hopeful with an injury that required surgery. Is he ready to fire big off the bench, off surgery, particularly at a distance he has yet to try? And do you want 6-5 or so to find out?

One option may be Heir D' Twine for trainer Stephen DiMauro. He comes into this off a sharp non-winners-of-two win over this track at this distance. He's not prepping for the Wood or Derby; this is his Wood. Sure, he doesn't have the proven class of the two favorites but he has current form and fewer condition questions, and that's not a bad thing at 8-1 or so.