02/25/2004 1:00AM

Second-stringers trying to move up

Minister Eric, who has been overshadowed in the barn of Richard Mandella, will make his 2004 debut Saturday.

Minister Eric always has played the understudy in the barn of trainer Richard Mandella. He was second to stablemate Siphonizer in the Del Mar Futurity. He was second to stablemate Action This Day in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. And he will be the second of those horses to make his 2004 debut, when he begins his quest for the May 1 Kentucky Derby in Saturday's Baldwin Stakes at Santa Anita.

The Baldwin is one of four stakes Saturday featuring Derby prospects percolating just below the top spots, or seeking to gain national recognition. At Oaklawn Park, the unbeaten Smarty Jones returns from a seven-week layoff in the Southwest Stakes. At Laurel, Capac makes his stakes debut in the Miracle Wood. And at Turfway Park, the unbeaten White Mountain Boy and Whirlaway Stakes winner Little Matth Man are scheduled to meet in the 1 1/16-mile John Battaglia Memorial.

The Baldwin - which is scheduled for 6 1/2 furlongs on turf, but could be moved to the main track if predicted wet weather washes out grass racing at Santa Anita - is an unusual spot for a well-regarded 3-year-old to begin his march toward the Derby. But Mandella said it is the best option.

Minister Eric needed time off following the Breeders' Cup because of sore shins. In addition, he underwent surgery to remove chips from an ankle and a knee. As a result, despite a series of strong recent workouts, Mandella was uncomfortable throwing Minister Eric around two turns, against the likes of Lion Heart, one week later in Santa Anita's San Rafael Stakes.

"He only had one six-furlong workout, and he didn't get enough out of it," Mandella said. "He's not up to racing a mile against a really deep bunch. It's just timing. I'd just as soon get a short race into him instead of a lot of works.

"He had sore shins, so he needed time for that," the trainer said. "And he always had chips in his knee and ankle. They weren't bothering him. But when we stopped on him for the sore shins, it made sense to go ahead and take them out, too."

Like Minister Eric, Mandella's champion 2-year-olds of 2003 have had minor setbacks this spring. Action This Day was not training to Mandella's satisfaction in January, so he postponed his 2004 debut until this month's Sham Stakes, in which he finished fourth. Halfbridled, the unbeaten winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, also missed a scheduled start in this month's Las Virgenes Stakes because Mandella was not happy with her training just prior to the race. She is now scheduled to run in the Santa Anita Oaks on March 13.

Mandella has another promising 3-year-old in Spellbinder, who won an allowance race at Santa Anita on Jan. 23. He will make his stakes debut in the San Rafael.

Smarty Jones, who won the Count Fleet at Aqueduct on Jan. 3, is "ready to rock and roll," trainer John Servis said from Oaklawn. "He's training excellent. He's killing my exercise boy, Pete Vantrump. He's a handful. He's always been a tough horse."

The Southwest is at one mile, which at Oaklawn means the race starts and finishes at what usually is the sixteenth pole.

"We call it the short mile because of the stretch," Servis said. "There should be a lot of good speed. I'd love to see him lay off the pace and make one run."

Capac, who has spent the winter at Camden, S.C., with trainer Mike Bell, will venture north again for the Miracle Wood at 1 1/16 miles. Bell is bringing Capac along cautiously. This will be his first start around two turns.

"We'll see how that plays out. Hopefully we can look ahead after the race," Bell said from South Carolina. "If he's good enough for the Derby, we know he's going to need to get some graded money, but I want him to tell me he's good enough. This is the right spot for now. I'm not in a big hurry. I'm optimistic, but I'm also realistic."

In other Derby developments:

* The highly regarded Tapit worked seven furlongs between races on Wednesday at Laurel in 1:29.80. He worked in company with two stablemates and finished swiftly after going off very slowly. His trainer, Michael Dickinson, said he is not sure where Tapit will make his 2004 debut; he has not raced since capturing the Laurel Futurity on Nov. 15.

David Fiske, the racing manager for owner Ron Winchell, said Wednesday from Lexington, Ky.: "Ron Winchell and I are leaning toward the Florida Derby." What does Dickinson think of that? "Michael never exposes his cards until he has to," Fiske said.

* Trainer Nick Zito said Champagne Stakes winner Birdstone was likely to make his next start in the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park on March 20. Zito said The Cliff's Edge, who was upset in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, will likely go in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 13.

* Edgar Prado has picked up the mount on Master David in the Florida Derby.

* Gran Prospect is scheduled to run in an allowance race on Saturday at Oaklawn Park.

- additional reporting by David Grening