04/07/2004 12:00AM

Restoring tarnished images

Action This Day, with trainer Richard Mandella, needs a good performance in Saturday's Blue Grass to regain the prominence he earned by winning last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Last fall, four of the highest-ranked 2-year-olds in the country were kept out of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. In most cases, the desire to point for the Kentucky Derby six months later, and the failure of previous Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners to capture the Derby, was cited as the reason.

By almost any measurement, those decisions have proven to be abject failures. Three of the four - Breeders' Futurity winner Eurosilver, Norfolk Stakes winner Ruler's Court, and Hopeful Stakes winner Silver Wagon - have been removed from Derby consideration because of injury or illness. And the fourth, Champagne Stakes winner Birdstone, has seen his status fall this spring following his fifth-place finish in last month's Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park.

Birdstone will seek to keep his hopes alive on Saturday in the Grade 1, $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. He wound up on the rail, with eight rivals to his outside, when post positions were drawn on Wednesday morning for the 1 1/8-mile race.

Lining up right next to Birdstone is Action This Day, who benefited by the absence of the big four last fall when he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita. Action This Day is seeking to become the first of 21 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners to capture the Derby. Yet he too has had a setback this spring. He finished seventh, beating just two runners, in last month's San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, and is 0 for 2 since the Breeders' Cup.

Despite the inglorious record of Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners, trainer Richard Mandella has no second thoughts about running in the race last fall. As Mandella points out, his colt earned the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old colt, something Birdstone, Eurosilver, Ruler's Court, and Silver Wagon virtually forfeited by passing the race.

"I think you better get it while you can," Mandella said Wednesday morning at Keeneland. "If your horse is on his last legs, and you push him, shame on you. But as long as he's progressing, I don't see the harm in running in the Breeders' Cup.

"I don't believe in the jinx. The only time it makes sense is when a precocious 2-year-old wins the Juvenile, [then] doesn't grow up. A Breeders' Cup winner will win the Derby one day, and watch out when it happens, because you'll probably get three of them in five years."

Nick Zito, who trains Birdstone and Eurosilver, admitted Wednesday that, in hindsight, going for the Breeders' Cup might have been a risk worth taking. But circumstances last fall, according to Zito, made that imprudent.

"You're dealt certain cards," Zito said Wednesday morning at Keeneland. "Eurosilver had bucked his shins, and needed them fired.

"Birdstone, I agreed with Marylou Whitney," Zito said, referring to the colt's owner, "that the Champagne should be his last race as a 2-year-old. He's small, and he was a late foal. He was born May 16. He won't actually be 3 until the day after the Preakness. I'm not against the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. I understand passing if you're based in New York, the race is in California, and your horse was born May 16.

"I don't understand having a horse that wins by 14, at the home track, and passes the race," Zito said, referring to Ruler's Court, who won the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita last fall. Ruler's Court, owned by Godolphin Racing, returned to Dubai last fall, suffered an injury soon thereafter, and has not raced since.

Both Action This Day and Birdstone earned so much money as 2-year-olds that, despite their subpar 3-year-old campaigns to date, they are virtually assured of starting spots in the Derby if their connections elect to go on after the Blue Grass. They are among the leaders in graded stakes earnings, which will be the tie-breaker should more than the maximum of 20 runners enter the Derby, a likely possibility in this wide-open year.

Action This Day arrived here from California on Monday, and completed his serious training for the Blue Grass on Wednesday. He worked five furlongs, but was officially timed for just his final half-mile, which was completed in 48.80 seconds under exercise rider Paul Nilluang.

"He's pretty lazy by himself," Mandella said. "He was too wound up at home. It was nice to see him settle down. If he settles and finishes, that's his best game."

Mandella has changed equipment on Action This Day. He is now wearing a new bridle, called a Win-A-Lot, whose most notable adherent was Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. "The Win-A-Lot holds the tongue in his mouth, and doesn't let him get his tongue over the bit," Mandella said. "We tried him in a tongue tie, but he resented it."

In other Derby developments:

* Lion Heart, the winner of the Hollywood Futurity, was installed as the 5-2 favorite for the Blue Grass by Keeneland linemaker Mike Battaglia. In addition to Action This Day, Birdstone, and Lion Heart, others entered in the race, in post-position order, are The Cliff's Edge, Limehouse, That's an Outrage, Mustanfar, Preachinatthebar, and Breakaway. All nine runners carry 123 pounds.

* The Blue Grass will be seen live on NBC in a 90-minute telecast that begins at 4:30 p.m. Eastern.

* The Blue Grass is middle leg of the Big 3 Pick 3, which begins with the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, and concludes with the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

* Smarty Jones, the likely favorite, drew the outside post when 11 were entered on Wednesday in the Arkansas Derby. Borrego, the probable second choice, drew the rail.

* The Wood, like the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby, is at 1 1/8 miles. Post positions for that race were scheduled to be drawn Thursday. Eddington, Master David, Sinister G, Tapit, and Value Plus are the marquee names in that race.

* Jerry Bailey has picked up the mount on Quintons Gold Rush for the $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 17. The Lexington is also expected to include Fire Slam, Minister Eric, Pomeroy, Saratoga County, and Capac, who will be making his first start since disappointing as the odds-on favorite in the Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee