04/22/2004 12:00AM

Oaks a fine consolation prize

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Richard Mandella said Thursday morning at Churchill Downs that he would have seriously considered Halfbridled for the Kentucky Derby if Halfbridled had "come back and been flawless like she was last year."

But after beginning her 3-year-old season with two defeats in two starts, Halfbridled certainly does not seem to be the world-beater she was last year. So, soon after Halfbridled worked in company with fellow Eclipse champion and stablemate Action This Day, finishing six furlongs on even terms in 1:12.40, Mandella made clear his thoughts about Halfbridled's next scheduled start, the Kentucky Oaks.

"I wouldn't mind winning the Oaks, believe me," he said. "She's obviously hit a few bumps in the road this year. This might seem the conservative route, but it might not be conservative, considering how good the fillies are this year. That's a pretty good band of fillies out there, and the Oaks might actually be the tougher race."

Indeed, several of Halfbridled's divisional rivals have performed fabulously to cut into her once undisputed margin of superiority, and the 130th running of the Grade 1, $500,000 Oaks is shaping up as a very contentious race. At least 10 other 3-year-old fillies are expected for the Oaks here next Friday: A.P. Adventure, Ashado, Class Above, Hollywood Story, House of Fortune, Island Sand, Last Song, Madcap Escapade, Silent Sighs, and Victory U.S.A.

Mandella said he thought Halfbridled looked particularly strong and willing throughout her Thursday work and that both she and Action This Day galloped out in strong fashion. Mandella also said Action This Day will probably have a short blowout next week, but the Thursday work will probably serve as Halfbridled's last one before the Oaks.

"She's a little, delicate filly," he said. "Whether we do or not [work her again] depends, but we always tend to be a little easier with the girls."

Jockey Alex Solis, who also could have ridden A.P. Adventure or House of Fortune in the Oaks, has chosen Halfbridled.

No Trial for Capac

One notable absentee from the Derby Trial is Capac, the Deputy Minister colt who came away from a sharp maiden win here last fall with a sparkling reputation. Trainer Mike Bell said he declined to run Capac in the Trial "because I just didn't feel like I had enough time to get real, real comfortable with how he's doing. It would've been the perfect race for him, but I just don't want to make any mistakes with him."

Asked whether Capac would race soon, Bell said: "I hope so. If he keeps coming on the way he is, he's going to knock me down. We're going to have to run him somewhere soon."

Velasquez to stick around

Cornelio Velasquez, who unseated perennial kingpin Pat Day when he won the 2003 spring riding crown at Churchill, has forsaken the upcoming Belmont Park meet to defend his title. Agent Richard DePass said he and Velasquez initially planned to work at Belmont, "but after we thought about it, it wasn't going to work," said DePass. "If we were going, we needed to pass on Keeneland and start building business in New York, but that's not what we decided. So we're here for the meet."

New and improved graphics

Most fans probably won't even notice, but the new simulcast graphics package that Churchill will employ during the spring meet will have some subtle differences from previous meets. Several months ago, Churchill bought out Charlson Broadcasting Technologies, which had overseen its simulcasting operations, and hired David Loignon, a seasoned television professional who is in the process of revamping the department.

One of the major new features concerns the Derby and its 20-horse field, said John Asher, Churchill vice president for racing communications.

"When you've got 20 horses, and you're trying to efficiently display exacta will-pays and all other sorts of important wagering information, that's quite a task," said Asher. "We believe our new package will adequately handle all that."

* One of the many highlights of Derby weekend, the $400,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, is shaping up with an excellent field. As of Thursday afternoon, the likely starters for the Grade 1 race include these eight older horses: Burning Sun, Honor In War, Kicken Kris, Mystery Giver, Perfect Soul, Silver Tree, Stage Call, and Sweet Return.

* Azeri, prepping for next Saturday's Grade 1, $250,000 Humana Distaff, breezed five furlongs Friday in 59.60 seconds over a sloppy Churchill surface. Trained by D. Wayne Lukas, Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year will be ridden again by Mike Smith in the seven-furlong Humana Distaff.

* Besides the Trial, the 10-race Saturday opener at Churchill also includes a $52,000 allowance sprint that drew Grade 1 winner Lady Tak, who will be looking to rebound off back-to-back last-place finishes when she faces four other fillies and mares in the fourth race.

* Apprentice rider Dallas King has abruptly retired at age 17 because of problems making weight. King, a Lebanon, Ky., native who was represented by the agent known only as Clarence, began his career last July at Ellis Park and had ridden primarily on the Kentucky circuit. From 525 mounts, King had 34 wins and purse earnings of $355,248.

* The nearby Trackside simulcast facility will be closed Saturday through Thursday before reopening for the rest of the meet on Oaks Day.