01/24/2002 12:00AM

Is something amiss with Siphonic?

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Don't worry. It's okay. Everything is going to be all right.

It's what you want to hear, isn't it? It makes you feel better, doesn't it?

Siphonic, the country's top 3-year-old, nearly fell on his face Saturday at Santa Anita, but don't you worry. Siphonic is just fine. Go back to sleep now.

What a relief.

For a minute there, Siphonic appeared to be in trouble. But now comes word he is okay. He took an awful stumble at the start of the Santa Catalina Stakes, one that might have injured a lesser horse.

"A lot of times they can strain their back or their belly when something like that happens," jockey Jerry Bailey said afterward.

Thankfully, word from trainer David Hofmans' barn is Siphonic was not injured. The blundered start only elevated Siphonic's status in the eyes of many. They may have a point. After all, few horses would recover from the misstep that cost Siphonic eight lengths at the break. Undeterred, he produced a powerful mid-race rally, briefly threatened, and nearly salvaged the entire afternoon by finishing second at odds of 1-to-10.

So don't worry, Siphonic is fine. The winter-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby is fine. All he lost was a race.

What a relief.

Because for a minute there, Siphonic appeared to be in trouble.

For a while, other concerns might have been raised. Now, we do not have to worry. Do we?

High-profile horses are easy targets, but speculation in the days leading to the race suggested Siphonic had regressed since the Hollywood Futurity Dec. 15. If this was idle backstretch gossip, shame on those clockers and well-respected trainers who dared whisper a negative opinion.

Maybe it just goes with the territory. Everybody wants to knock the favorite.

Siphonic shipped from his Hollywood Park base to Santa Anita four days before the Santa Catalina. On Friday, the day before the race, a person asked about Siphonic's motion in workouts at Hollywood. The person explained: "I don't like how he looks this morning, but I don't have anything to compare to."

With no frame of reference, the skeptical notion was withdrawn.

Of course, Siphonic is not the first marquee horse to attract pessimism. Lady's Secret was rumored under a cloud days before she romped in the 1986 Breeders' Cup Distaff. Flawlessly, champion turf mare in 1992 and 1993, was constantly stiff. Grindstone was thought to be 50-50 to even start in the 1996 Kentucky Derby, which he won. And last year, Monarchos fooled experts with a Derby-week training pattern that became the subject of rampant negativity.

So this was nothing new. The Siphonic doubts might have flowed regardless. But on race day, Siphonic himself fueled the distrust.

You expect the early favorite for the Derby to act like a seasoned veteran. After all, Siphonic already had performed well at four different racetracks in three different states. He had shipped, sprinted, routed, won on the lead, won from behind. On paper, he had no visible flaw.

But on Sunday, Siphonic was fidgety in the paddock. While he maintained composure, his body language suggested the possibility he was not happy to be there. It makes you wonder, why not?

Siphonic's attitude did not improve in the post parade. While he stayed relatively dry, he appeared mildly agitated. Bailey broke him away from the rest of the field and tried to soothe the colt's burden, whatever it was.

The drama unfolded in 15 minutes before the Santa Catalina. Discouraging word spread from wise guy to wise guy, yet other bettors held their ground. Siphonic was 1-to-10, and stayed put as the field neared the starting gate.

Notwithstanding week-long speculation that he had tailed off, his paddock anxiety, and unrelaxed mannerisms in the post parade, Siphonic loaded. You saw what happened next. A train wreck.

Now, we ask questions.

Can the body language of a racehorse predict the unpredictable?

Is a bobble only a bobble, nothing more? Or, was Siphonic trying to communicate a message? Maybe he just doesn't like Santa Anita.

Don't worry. It's okay. Everything is going to be all right.

It's what you want to hear.

It's what you want to believe.

So, do you?