02/23/2002 1:00AM

Saarland's return foiled yet again

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Three strikes and you're out!

Trainer Shug McGaughey's attempt to launch Saarland's 3-year-old campaign in a seven-furlong allowance dash failed for the third straight time Saturday as the race scheduled for Monday again died with only three names in the box.

"I can't believe they couldn't make the race go," said McGaughey, "that they couldn't get a couple of horses who have been running for $30,000 or $40,000 to go in there to fill it."

McGaughey was hoping to get a prep into Saarland, who has not started since winning the Grade 2 Remsen on Nov. 19, before shipping him up to New York to run in the Gotham on March 17.

"I could send him to New York for an allowance race the end of the week, but that means shipping him up and bringing him back again," said McGaughey. "I even got a message from the racing secretary at Tampa Bay Downs who said he guaranteed he'd make a race go for him there. But again that means shipping him up and back when it could be pretty hot. So I'll just keep him here and train him up to the Gotham."

McGaughey also said he has sent Maybry's Boy, who finished a disappointing eighth and last in the Fountain of Youth, to Rood and Riddle Clinic in Lexington for tests.

"He's not lame or off, but he's just not right," said McGaughey. "So I sent him to Rood and Riddle to find out just what the problem is."

Prado gets Harlan's Holiday mount

Trainer Ken McPeek confirmed Saturday that Edgar Prado will ride Harlan's Holiday in the $1 million Florida Derby on March 16. He will replace Tony D'Amico, who remains the regular rider on stablemate Repent.

"We tossed several names around but after talking with the owners we settled on Prado," McPeek said. "Edgar is a first-class rider who has been riding absolutely super here this meet."

McPeek said Prado will be aboard Harlan's Holiday for his next work, which is scheduled later this week.

"I want to give Edgar the opportunity to get acquainted with the horse," said McPeek. "He'll breeze somewhere between the 26th and 28th depending upon the weather."

Nokoma gets it done

He won by only three-quarters of a length, but the way Nokoma won a $34,000 preliminary allowance race on the Saturday undercard seemed far more important than his margin of victory.

"He showed a lot of determination," said trainer Todd Pletcher.

Indeed, after straightening for home in the mile and 70-yard allowance race, Nokoma had little choice but to maintain his ground near the rail. As three other 3-year-olds were waging a fierce battle to his outside, Nokoma dug deep to rally for a hard-fought triumph under John Velazquez. The winner paid $4.80 as second choice in a field reduced to seven starters.

Puck and Doc Wild finished in a dead-heat for second, while Monthir, the 6-5 favorite, was just another head back in fourth. The final time was 1:42.55.

Pletcher said Nokoma most likely earned a berth in the March 16 Florida Derby. "Those are the kind of signs you're looking for, that a horse will fight his way through a spot like that," he said. "That's the kind of determination you need in the big fields he'll be coming up against."

Nokoma, a Pulpit colt owned by Michael Tabor, had finished second in the Remsen in his final start at 2, then disappointed when fourth in his lone previous race this year, the Jan. 19 Holy Bull Stakes. "I'm happy with what he did," said Tabor. "What it means at the end of the day, we'll have to wait and see. But you always like to see a horse show the kind of determination he showed today."

Tortora heavies gearing up

While heavy overnight rains closed the racetrack for training at Gulfstream on Saturday morning, it was just about business as usual across town at Calder, where trainer Manny Tortora had his two big guns, Showmeitall and Fappie's Notebook, out to work over the sloppy track.

Showmeitall, who outnodded Monthir to win the Grade 3 Hutcheson Stakes, turned in an eye-catching one-mile work in 1:41.40 around the dogs under jockey Jorge Chavez. Fappie's Notebook, an equally game head winner of the Deputy Minister Handicap, went a half-mile in 49.60 seconds.

Tortora plans to skip the Florida Derby with Showmeitall in favor of the Tampa Bay Derby the next day. He is undecided whether Fappie's Notebook will come back in the seven-furlong Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Sprint Championship on March 9 or the following afternoon in the 1 1/16-mile Creme Fraiche Handicap.

"Both horses are doing terrific," Tortora said. "Showmeitall worked unbelievable. He went one of his eighths down the backside in 11 and the final quarter in 24. He's getting better every time he runs and he's also gotten to the point where we can rate him too. Right now I'm going to duck the heavy heads and let them sort themselves out. He's eligible for everything, including the Kentucky Derby, so we'll just see if he's that good as the winter and spring progresses."

Tortora said he will enter Fappie's Notebook in both the Gulfstream Park Sprint and the Creme Fraiche, then see how the two races shape up.

"My preference is to sprint him, but he can go either way, so we'll just look at both and see what happens," Tortora said. "One thing is for certain. He's about as good as he can get right now."

Fast Decision solid in maiden win

Fast Decision ($5.80) posted an impressive maiden victory for trainer Christophe Clement. Fast Decision, a 3-year-old Gulch colt making his second career start, finished seven furlongs in a solid 1:22.62.

"The first time, he broke bad and then was climbing before I got him running," said jockey Edgar Prado. "He did everything wrong. But this time, [Clement] had him ready. When I asked him, he switched leads and took off."

- additional reporting by Marty McGee