01/15/2003 1:00AM

Seek Gold keeps dream alive, so far


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The road to the 2003 Kentucky Derby begins in earnest here Saturday with the Holy Bull Stakes, and nobody knows the road better than Nick Zito, who will be represented in the Grade 3 race by Seek Gold.

"The beauty about having young horses during this part of the year is that you've still got the dream," said Zito, who has realized the dream twice, winning the Kentucky Derby in 1991 with Strike the Gold and again three years later with Go for Gin.

Seek Gold came to Florida full of promise after winning his maiden going 1 1/8 miles impressively at Aqueduct in late October. He struggled to beat first-level allowance horses at Calder on Nov. 23, then finished a well-beaten fifth behind Trust N Luck to close out his juvenile campaign in Calder's What a Pleasure Stakes on Dec. 14.

"Eibar Coa rode this horse in the allowance race and Rene Douglas in the stakes, and both jocks told me he didn't like that track," said Zito of the Calder outings. "I'm just hoping he rebounds to that last race in New York on Saturday. If he does, then maybe he really has the quality we think he has."

While the Holy Bull is obviously just a precursor to more important 3-year-olds preps like the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby later this winter, Zito calls it a "good barometer" for young horses.

"If a 3-year-old with some talent doesn't do well in this type of race, then you're probably just kidding yourself thinking about running in the more important races later in the winter," said Zito. "Right now, Vindication in the West and Toccet in the East are the two outstanding 3-year-olds. These 3-year-olds I'm running here now, like Seek Gold, have to get to that level or it's time to face reality and look someplace else."

Among the more promising 3-year-olds in Zito's barn is a lightly raced maiden named Defy Logic who has finished second and third after breaking slowly in each of his first two starts.

"I'm really high on Defy Logic," said Zito. "And I think when he stretches out he's really going to be okay."

Christmas in January for Byrne

Pat Byrne is quick to recognize the history involving Christmas Away, the potential classics contender he will saddle Saturday in the Holy Bull Stakes.

Christmas Away is by Skip Away, the star horse who was involved in close races for Horse of the Year in 1997 and 1998. In both years, Byrne trained the main challenger to Skip Away for top honors.

"In '97, people thought Skip Away got robbed when we had Favorite Trick," who was voted Horse of the Year, said Byrne. "Then the next year, people thought we got robbed when Awesome Again went 6 for 6 but still lost Horse of the Year to Skip Away."

Now Byrne is on the Skip Away bandwagon, hoping that Christmas Away can be half as good as his sire. "I figure that since Skip Away won almost $10 million, it'd be great if this colt was half as good," he said. "That way, he'd knock out $5 million, right?"

If looks and demeanor count for anything, then Christmas Away has a solid chance to emulate his sire. A gray colt that Byrne says "is big and scopey, and still has some developing to do," Christmas Away has the same distinctive high-knee action that was a Skip Away hallmark.

"It is uncanny," said Byrne. "Now he's got to keep improving."

Christmas Away, owned by Carl Bowling and Charles Thompson, is a late-running colt who will be ridden by Pat Day from post 5 in the Holy Bull. In his last start, Christmas Away finished seventh in the Tropical Park Derby on the Calder turf.

"There's quite a bit of speed in this race, so that could be perfect for us," said Byrne. "All the speed, the better."

Byrne believes Christmas Away, a two-time winner from six starts, may be good enough to become a Kentucky Derby contender. "This race Saturday should give us a good indication of where we're headed," he said.

Longshots to give it a shot

Trainers who pulled off two of the more memorable upsets in 3-year-old stakes at Gulfstream in recent years are both represented in the Holy Bull.

T.V. Smith, who won the 1999 Holy Bull with 15-1 shot Grits'n Hard Toast, will saddle Offlee Wild, while Bob Durso, who won the 1997 Hutcheson Stakes with 108-1 shot Frisk Me Now, will start Flank Attack.

Both colts are still eligible for first-level allowance conditions, and both figure as longshots. Offlee Wild, by Wild Again, has won once in three starts, and Flank Attack, by End Sweep, is 1 for 9 with four seconds.

Smith and Durso both give their horses outside chances at getting their trainers a second major Gulf upset.

"This race is asking a lot, but this is a really nice colt," said Smith.

Whata Brainstorm ready for Mac attack

Whata Brainstorm worked four furlongs in 48.60 seconds around the dogs over a good turf course Wednesday preparing for Sunday's $100,000 Mac Diarmida Handicap.

Trainer Jim Picou was hoping to run Whata Brainstorm in the Sunshine Millions Turf at Santa Anita the following Saturday but knows his horse is too far down the eligibility list to make the starting lineup when entries are drawn for that race next Monday.

"It would have been nice to have tried him for the $750,000 purse, but right now we'll take what we can get," said Picou.

Whata Brainstorm won the Grade 2 Pan American Handicap and was beaten a neck in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap here in 2001 but has been injury-plagued ever since.

"He took a flake off his sesamoid when he ran here last winter," Picou said, "and then got sick on me when he was close to making his comeback this summer at Saratoga. I just ran him into shape after that. His last two races have been good, and I think he's back at the top of his game right now."

Jorge Chavez will ride Whata Brainstorm in the 1 3/8-mile Mac Diarmida, which is expected to draw a full field.

Repent set to resume training

Repent, the highly regarded 4-year-old who suffered a minor tendon injury in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in early October, is scheduled to be vanned Sunday to Gulfstream and return to training shortly thereafter, trainer Ken McPeek said.

"He got a clean bill of health and is ready to go back to work," said McPeek. "He's coming down from Ocala, where he's been taking it easy since we turned him out."

Repent, winner of the Louisiana Derby last year and a sharp runner-up in the Travers Stakes in August, "rapped his tendon" in his last start. "It wasn't a bow, it wasn't really much of anything. He just needed some time."

McPeek said his star filly, Take Charge Lady, also could travel Sunday from Ocala. "She's doing so well up there, I don't want her to get too fat on me," he said.

Toccet due on Monday

Toccet, the probable favorite for the Feb. 15 Fountain of Youth Stakes, is scheduled to arrive Monday afternoon at the Palm Meadows training center, said trainer John Scanlan.

Toccet will be making his first start since ending his 2-year-old season with a victory in the Hollywood Futurity. He currently is at Laurel Park in Maryland with the balance of Scanlan's stable.

"I'm bringing Toccet and three other horses," said Scanlan. Asked whether he will remain in south Florida to oversee Toccet on a daily basis, Scanlan said, "Oh, yeah. I might eat, drink, and sleep with him, at least as much as I can."

The Grade 1 Fountain of Youth follows the Holy Bull in Gulfstream's series of major races for 3-year-olds. The March 15 Florida Derby ends the series.

Lion Tamer in transition

Trainer Todd Pletcher confirmed that Lion Tamer, an impressive allowance winner here on Jan. 4, his first race since he won a maiden race at Belmont in September, is in the process of being sold by John Fort's Peachtree Stable to Michael Tabor.

"He's scheduled to be vetted on Thursday," said Pletcher who will keep the horse in his barn whether the sale goes through or not.

Pletcher said either way Lion Tamer will make his next start in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes on Feb. 15.

"I just felt I needed to get two races into him before trying to stretch him out," said Pletcher.

Bravo still on the mend

Jockey Joe Bravo, out since suffering a badly fractured wrist in a May 30 spill at Monmouth Park, is still about two months away from returning to action, Bravo's agent, Danny Mellul, said recently.

Bravo is living in the Miami area while undergoing daily rehabilitation not only for his wrist, but also for a broken leg he suffered in a July 2001 riding accident. "While he was having surgery on the wrist, he figured he'd have the rod taken out of his leg, too," said Mellul. "Hopefully, he'll be back getting on horses within the next couple of months."

Bravo, 31, is a perennial leading rider in New Jersey but also has fared well in Florida and New York.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee