01/28/2002 12:00AM

Saarland may pass on Fountain

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Saarland, winner of the Remsen Stakes last November and one of the East Coast's top Kentucky Derby hopefuls, is getting close to his 3-year-old debut. When and where that debut will take place is not as clear as first thought.

Trainer Shug McGaughey shipped Saarland to south Florida with the intention of running him in the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 16. But, the Gulfstream surface is much deeper than it has been in past years, causing McGaughey to rethink his plan.

"This track is a little looser and a big horse like him I don't think it favors him that much," McGaughey said Monday. "I'm just going to sort of wait and see. My main objective for him is the Wood Memorial. I'd like to run him twice [before the Wood]. If it was once, that would be okay too."

The Wood, now a Grade 1 after producing the last two Kentucky Derby winners, is run at Aqueduct on April 13. McGaughey said he could run Saarland in an allowance race here or in New York before the Wood

"Saarland's future is in front of him," McGaughey said. "He's being trained to run in the Derby, but I ain't going to beat him up to get him there. That's what we want, that's what we're pointing toward."

On Sunday, Saarland breezed five furlongs in 1:02.20.

Meanwhile, McGaughey is gearing up his other 3-year-old, Maybry's Boy, for Saturday's $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes at seven furlongs. Maybry's Boy won the Spectacular Bid here on opening day, and McGaughey said the horse has to prove he's worthy of being pointed to longer races.

"He's still learning," McGaughey said. "I got my doubts whether right now that's what he wants to do. If he runs good, I'll run him back in the Fountain of Youth."

On Monday, Maybry's Boy breezed four furlongs in 49 seconds.

'Star' on rise, 'Fred' on sidelines

Trainer Nick Zito's Derby hopes got a boost when High Star won a preliminary allowance race Saturday by 2 3/4 lengths. That win helped Zito absorb the news that Silent Fred is off the Derby trail with a broken foot.

High Star, a son of Private Terms owned by Buckram Oak Farm, kicked away strongly in the final furlong and covered 1 1/16 miles in 1:46.71, .21 seconds faster than second-level allowance runners did in the next race.

Zito said he would prefer to run High Star back in another allowance race - and not the Fountain of Youth.

"My wish list is a two-other-than, then shoot for the Florida Derby," Zito said.

Meanwhile, Zito said that Silent Fred, who finished third in the Remsen, will be sidelined two months with a broken foot. The fracture was detected on X-rays taken by Dr. Larry Bramlage at the Rood and Riddle Equine Clinic in Lexington, Ky.

"I guess it's mid-summer for him," Zito said. "I feel bad for [owner] Dee Conway, she's a nice lady."

Ward assistant shows improvement

Yvonne Azeff, the assistant trainer to John Ward who was seriously injured during training hours Saturday, was showing signs of improvement, according to those close to her.

According to co-workers and friends, Azeff had still not regained consciousness, but her vital signs were good and her heart rate rose when she heard familiar voices. She still had swelling on the brain, and she was suffering from whiplash.

"She still hasn't regained consciousness, but they put a feeding tube in her and her brain pressure is good and the trauma team says she's very much within predicted parameters on the good side for this type of injury," Ward said. "Her vital signs are good."

Azeff, 41, was listed in stable condition Monday at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood. On Saturday, Azeff was injured when the stable pony she was on became agitated when the horse he was accompanying acted up. The pony hit into the side of a barn wall, then hit a chain link fence and fell, pinning Azeff beneath him.

Azeff, a native of Philadelphia, is Ward's top assistant at Gulfstream and was part of the team that prepared Monarchos for his 2001 Kentucky Derby win.

Prado has five-win day

Last weekend was a roller coaster ride for jockey Edgar Prado.

On Friday, Prado won the $100,000 De La Rose Handicap aboard Veil of Avalon by the bob of a head over Snow Dance. The following afternoon he was winless in eight mounts while finishing a frustrating second on four occasions.

Then came Sunday!

Prado won five races on Sunday's nine-race program, but missed a sixth when 2-5 favorite A New Twist, in theory his most likely winner on the card, was upset by Take the Cake in the $100,000 Forward Gal Stakes.

Prado's five-bagger vaulted him from eighth to third in the jockey standings, just two wins behind co-leaders Pat Day and Eibar Coa.

"It had been a bit of a frustrating meet up until Sunday," Prado said while en route to the jockey quarters before Monday's program.

"Saturday was a perfect example with all those seconds. But I feel a lot better about things after yesterday. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the sixth win with A New Twist. She just didn't seem quite as sharp as the time before," he said of victory in the Old Hat Stakes.

"I tried to save her a little early because she was going seven furlongs for the first time, but the winner ran a great race to beat us." Prado has some even richer assignments in the weeks ahead. These include the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 9, in which he will ride either Mongoose of Ubiquity for trainer H. James Bond, and the following Saturday when he will be aboard Grey Beard for Graham Motion in the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth Stakes.

Quality over quantity

Management at Gulfstream has been cutting back on the number of races it cards per day to provide bettors with fuller fields.

On Sunday, Gulfstream carded only nine races, as opposed to 11 the previous three Sundays. On Monday - for the second time this meet - there were only eight races. Wednesday and Thursday there are only nine races carded. Each of the previous Wednesdays and Thursdays had at least 10 races.

Gulfstream Park president Scott Savin said he could have filled 10 races on those days, but there would have been too many short fields.

With ontrack handle down 16 percent and total handle down 17 percent compared with the corresponding 23 days last year, Savin believes bigger fields will sway bettors to return. Savin said he is not as concerned with ontrack handle being down because handle from in-state simulcast outlets is up "dramatically." Savin did express, however, concern about players at simulcast outlets throughout the country migrating to other tracks.

"Out of state, it's a concern," Savin said. Bigger fields, he said, "would help get the simulcast players back, focused on a quality Gulfstream product. Gulfstream has always represented full fields and quality racing and I want to maintain that reputation if it's nine, 10, or 11 races as long as its quality."

Nafzger happy with Flying Free

Flying Free might have finished only third behind High Star under preliminary allowance conditions on Saturday, but trainer Carl Nafzger couldn't have been happier with the performance of his lightly raced 3-year-old, a son of Fly So Free, who looks like he could have an impact on the Triple Crown picture somewhere down the road.

Flying Free, making just his third start and first beyond six furlongs, broke poorly in the 1 1/16-mile allowance race. Down the backstretch he launched a steady run that ultimately put him on near even terms with High Star into the stretch before the effort took its toll down the stretch.

"I threw a real learning curve at him out around two turns against a quality horse like High Star," said Nafzger. "I didn't know going in if he'd relax and have any punch but he really ran exceptionally well especially considering the poor start."

While High Star may go right into the Fountain of Youth off that victory, Nafzger said he is not looking in that direction with Flying Free.

"He's not ready to go into a stakes race yet," said Nafzger. "That would be like throwing two more learning curves at him and I wouldn't want to do that to the horse right now. But I'm hope he'll eventually prove he belongs with that kind."

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch