03/13/2002 12:00AM

Seeking a rare Florida Derby double


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - As men who have spent virtually all of their adult lives in the sport, owner John Oxley and trainer John Ward have an especially deep appreciation of horse racing history.

So it is not difficult to understand why they are excited about the prospect of becoming only the second owner-trainer team to win back-to-back runnings of the Florida Derby.

"That, to me, would be quite an accomplishment," said Ward.

Last year, Oxley and Ward won the race with Monarchos. This year, they have one of the favorites in Booklet, who is trying to establish his own bit of Gulfstream history by becoming the first horse to sweep the Holy Bull, the Fountain of Youth, and the Florida Derby.

"It's historical," said Oxley. "I'm just thrilled to be in this position. I've attended the Florida Derby for some 40 years now, the first 30 as a bettor and fan. I used to dream of just picking and betting the winner, but to have this, it's unbelievable."

This is the 51st running of the Florida Derby, and the only time that an owner-trainer team won in consecutive years was 1957-58, when Calumet Farm and Jimmy Jones won with Gen. Duke and Tim Tam.

Hennig enters two

Until he decided to enter Monthir, trainer Mark Hennig's lone Florida Derby starter this year was Personal Reward, who has won twice at the meet after losing his first two starts.

Hennig said he might not have considered Personal Reward for the race, but added, "this may not be typical of a Grade 1. There are some horses in there that still have two-other-than conditions, and that's what he is."

After Personal Reward drew the 10 post in the field of 11, Hennig said, "That doesn't really matter. It's a long run into the first turn. Besides, it might be better if he's out there in the clear since he's not that seasoned."

Personal Reward, is a homebred colt by Personal Hope, who was one of the first top horses trained by Hennig after he left his position as an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas in 1992. Personal Hope finished fourth in the 1993 Kentucky Derby.

Wolfs enter game with a bang

The owners of Florida Derby runner Harlan's Holiday, Jack and Laurie Wolf, have been active in the sport for only about 1 1/2 years, although Jack Wolf is a Louisville native who regularly attends the Kentucky Derby.

"This is truly a dream for us," said Laurie Wolf, a native of southwestern Louisiana. "We've always come to the races, but we've never experienced anything like this."

Jack Wolf, 52, is an Atlanta stockbroker who said watching the replays of Booklet narrowly defeat Harlan's Holiday in both the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth were "painful." But he certainly didn't mind last year when Oxley and Ward were winning with Monarchos.

"I bet on Monarchos in the Kentucky Derby," he said.

Zito sings praises of High Star

Trainer Nick Zito has been through all this before. Zito, who trained eventual Kentucky Derby winners Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994) in Florida before heading north, said he wanted to give his colt High Star a little more time to develop before trying him in a race as tough as the Florida Derby.

High Star, owned by Buckram Oak Farm, has started twice in allowance company at this meet, easily winning on Jan. 26, then losing by the barest of margins on Feb. 16.

"I thought he needed more time to develop," said Zito. "I thought it would be unfair to keep trying him against stakes horses until we get to the big dance. We certainly want to get to the Kentucky Derby with him."

Zito calls High Star "very courageous, very talented, a horse with lot of natural ability and tremendous heart." All of which is good, considering Zito's high standards: "When you run in the Triple Crown," he said, "you have to have a horse who can grin and bear it."

Ward one-liners nail McPeek

In a videotaped feature played Wednesday at the Florida Derby post-position draw, Ward had a little fun at the expense of Ken McPeek, who trains Booklet's rival, Harlan's Holiday.

In separate interviews, they were asked to compare themselves to each other. McPeek gave a nice, innocuous answer. Then Ward, 55, said, "I've got the age, and I've got the hair." McPeek, although 16 years younger, is nearly bald.

A short time later, when they were allowed to ask each other one question, McPeek's was, "Do you [Booklet] need the lead?" Ward's question was, "Where are you [Harlan's Holiday] going after your second-place finish in the Florida Derby?"

New-look Swale

With Monthir and Smooth Jazz entered unexpectedly in the Florida Derby, there is a whole new twist on the $150,000 Swale Stakes, the Grade 3 race on Saturday's Florida Derby undercard.

Although Hennig said he still would consider Monthir for the seven-furlong Swale, Todd Pletcher said Smooth Jazz definitely would run in the Florida Derby. Without either or both of them, the field for the Swale has become further depleted and appears to make Ethan Man an even stronger favorite.

Ethan Man, trained by Pat Byrne, will be ridden by Pat Day. As of Wednesday, the only other probables were Governor Hickel and Axis, although racing officials are seeking another few starters.

* The other stakes on the Florida Derby undercard are the $100,000 Equalize and $100,000 One Dreamer. Both are for Florida-breds.

* The Sunday feature is the $100,000 Hurricane Bertie for fillies and mares at 6 1/2 furlongs. The Hurricane Bertie is named for the standout mare who died unexpectedly in January 2001. She was owned by Bert, Elaine, and Richard Klein.

* Take the Cake, who won the Forward Gal Stakes in January before finishing fifth in the Feb. 24 Davona Dale, will run next in the March 23 Bourbonette Stakes at Turfway Park, said Ian Wilkes, assistant to trainer Carl Nafzger.