03/14/2002 1:00AM

A rivalry worth following


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Affirmed and Alydar: Thoroughbred racing's greatest rivalry. These outstanding colts met 10 times at age 2 and 3 during the 1970's, and in most of these confrontations were no more than an inch apart at the finish and yards ahead of the others.

Affirmed won seven of these epic battles. He was a fierce warrior and absolutely refused to be passed in the drive. Alydar beat him a couple of times by rushing past him. He never beat him mano a mano. Yet Alydar was truly a brilliant runner. He was a comfortable winner of the Flamingo and the Florida Derby, won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Arlington Classic by 13-length margins, and beat older horses in the Whitney at Saratoga by 10 lengths.

The quality of this magnificent rivalry derived from the accomplishments of both horses. It appears that we may have the same kind of story line for Saturday's 51st running of the $1 million Florida Derby. It's too early in the game to equate Booklet and Harlan's Holiday with Affirmed and Alydar, but it is not too early to hail them both for their ability and for the superb battles they staged here in the Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth.

Booklet's margin in their first meeting was three-quarters of a length, with another 11 lengths back to the third horse. In their last meeting they were separated by only a nose, and it was five lengths back to third. This is a time of physical growth for 3-year-olds, but they do not all advance at the same rate. It is obvious that Booklet and Harlan's Holiday are ahead of the others.

Harlan's Holiday may go off a slight favorite with a new rider, Edgar Prado, replacing Tony D'Amico. Some point to fresh speed in the Florida Derby as a threat to Booklet, who wins his races on the lead. But John Ward, who trains Booklet for Oklahoma oil man John Oxley, is confident the big, little Notebook colt, purchased privately on Jan. 1, will continue to answer all questions.

"I couldn't be more pleased with the way he is coming to the race," Ward said. "The Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth were hard races, but he shows no sign of fatigue. He is eager to do something every morning, and it is encouraging that he has put on weight and filled out these last few weeks."

The prospect of more speed in the Florida Derby doesn't phase Ward, who feels Booklet can relax behind horses and doesn't need the lead to win. If he is wrong about that, the trainer says there is sufficient time before the Kentucky Derby to effect a change.

"You have to like Booklet if you look at the record," Ward said. "He's won 6 of 7 starts over three different racetracks, has won for three different riders and two different trainers. He gives you everything he's got all the time."

If you like Booklet, you like Harlan's Holiday because they are so close. It should be noted that they have been carrying their weight in recent races, in contrast to most of the others, who will be picking up weight this weekend.

Nokoma is one of the most interesting opponents for Booklet and Harlan's Holiday. The Pulpit colt finished strongly last fall for a close second in the nine-furlong Remsen at Aqueduct. He also finished well to win a good allowance race here last month. His stablemate Smooth Jazz should help ensure a lively pace, so Nokoma could be in high gear for the stretch run.

Whatever the result, pay attention. The Florida Derby has been a reliable guide to Kentucky Derby form for quite a while.