04/07/2002 11:00PM

Remsen 1-2 at crucial junction


JAMAICA, N.Y. - When they left New York last fall after finishing first and second in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes, Saarland and Nokoma were at the top of most handicappers' lists for the 2002 Kentucky Derby.

Four and a half months later, neither has done much to enhance his credentials for the 128th Derby, which will be held May 4 at Churchill Downs.

In large part because of inactivity, and in some part because of the lack of a divisional standout, Saarland has remained high atop the list of Derby contenders. Saarland's only outing this year was a decent second-place finish behind Mayakovsky in last month's Gotham Stakes.

Nokoma, meanwhile, with poor performances in the Holy Bull and Florida Derby, has to this point run himself out of Derby contention.

Both Saarland and Nokoma will get one last chance to earn trips to Louisville when they run in Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. At nine furlongs over the main track, the Grade 1 Wood is conducted at the same conditions of last November's Remsen, in which Saarland held off Nokoma by a neck.

A field of eight is expected for the Wood, which has produced the last two Kentucky Derby winners and which will be televised live on ESPN (4-5 p.m. Eastern). With jockey assignments, the probable Wood field is: Blue Burner (Jerry Bailey), Buddha (Pat Day), Iwin (Kent Desormeaux), Laissezaller (Richard Migliore), Medaglia d'Oro (Laffit Pincay Jr.), Nokoma (Mike Smith), Saarland (John Velazquez), and Sunday Break (Gary Stevens).

Both Saarland and Nokoma put in their final Wood workouts Monday morning at Belmont Park, where both are based. Saarland, working in company with the 4-year-old allowance winner Pure Prize, breezed a half-mile in 48.08 seconds over the main track. It was the second fastest of 36 moves at the distance.

Nokoma, equipped with blinkers for the first time, breezed a half-mile by himself in 48.21 seconds over the training track.

Trainer Shug McGaughey said he worked Saarland in company to get him a little more competitive. He also put Saarland inside of Pure Prize to get Saarland accustomed to running inside of horses. Exercise rider Adolph Krajewski barely moved his hands on Saarland, who broke off on even terms with Pure Prize, and finished two lengths in front and galloped out five furlongs in 1:00.50.

McGaughey was ecstatic about Saarland's move, which capped a solid three weeks of progress since the Gotham.

"I think this is still a project in process," McGaughey said. "I think as of right now we've moved a little bit farther than I had envisioned where we would be."

Trainer Todd Pletcher has been anything but pleased with Nokoma this winter. After showing promise with his second-place finish in the Remsen, Nokoma has just an allowance win sandwiched between two bad stakes tries this year. Pletcher was extremely disappointed with Nokoma's seventh-place finish behind Harlan's Holiday in the Florida Derby, because he felt the horse was training exceptionally well for the race.

In an effort to change his luck, Pletcher will equip Nokoma with blinkers for the Wood. Nokoma's Monday workout was his first with the short-cup blinkers on.

"Even in the morning when he's galloping," Pletcher said, "he's very aware of what other horses are doing. I just wanted to put some short cups on him to keep his mind more focused.''

At Aqueduct, on Monday, Sunday Break worked six furlongs in 1:15.56, finishing several lengths ahead of workmate Groovy Pad. According to trainer Neil Drysdale, the two horses broke off together, with Sunday Break, under exercise rider Marcelino Olquin, drawing off late. Aqueduct clockers caught Sunday Break's first three furlongs in 38 seconds, his last three-eighths in 36.96.

"Everything went according to plan," Drysdale said. "We wanted him to draw off a little bit at the end which he did very well.''

Sunday Break, a Japanese-bred son of Forty Niner, has won three consecutive races including a nine-furlong allowance win here on March 27.

Buddha, a winner of two straight at Gulfstream, worked five furlongs Sunday in 1:01.40 at Payson Park. He is due to arrive Wednesday. Medaglia d'Oro, the San Felipe winner, worked six furlongs Sunday at Hollywood Park in 1:12.40. He, too, is expected Wednesday.

Snow Ridge is Carter heavy

Snow Ridge, winner of three straight, including the Grade 1 San Carlos Handicap last out at Santa Anita, was assigned high weight of 120 pounds for Saturday's Grade 1, $350,000 Carter Handicap. On Monday, Snow Ridge worked five furlongs in 1:00.40 at Santa Anita and was expected to ship from California to New York on Tuesday.

Others pointing to the Carter, run at seven furlongs, are Affirmed Success (119 pounds), Burning Roma (117), Dream Run (116), Peeping Tom (116), Say Florida Sandy (116), Here's Zealous (114), Run Kush Run (113), Voodoo (113), and either Aldebaran (115) or Shibboleth (115).

Here's Zealous, last as the 2-1 favorite in the Grade 2 General George Handicap at Laurel Park, worked a bullet half-mile in 47.61 seconds Monday at Aqueduct. At Belmont, Voodoo worked a bullet five furlongs in 1:00.09 over the training track.