03/20/2003 1:00AM

Spring 3-year-olds as trying as teenagers

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Anyone who has ever been responsible for the welfare of a teenager, or even had one for a neighbor, will tell you they can be a constant source of amazement.

Teeneage-like growing pains are part of the make-up of young Thoroughbreds, whose development can baffle even their closest handlers.

Three-year-olds are on the fast track to maturity during the winter and early spring, when for about six months they undergo approximately as much change as a typical teenager experiences in seven years. Besides dealing with growth spurts of horses, which can vary markedly depending on pedigree and other influences, trainers are learning on the fly when it comes to assessing preferences about such basics as distance, pace capabilities, running style, and footing, as well as a runner's inherent class.

What's more, many of these works in progress are subjected to a pressure-cooker schedule because money is on the table in the form of purses and bonuses linked to the Triple Crown series.

Add it all up and it's no wonder that non-claiming 3-year-olds are among the most maddeningly difficult runners to handicap.

One need look only to the following Bobby Frankel-trained threesome to see the most recent affirmations of this phenomenon:

Peace Rules: Given a 10-week freshening after winning three of four on turf last fall, he shipped cross-country and won on dirt for the first time - in the deepest field of 3-year-olds assembled so far. Go figure!

Empire Maker: He was a highly regarded diamond in the rough, even after defeats at 7-5 and 2-5 in his first two stakes assignments. Equipped with blinkers for the first time, he raced closer to the pace at every point of call and won the Florida Derby by a record margin.

Midas Eyes: He was sidelined for seven months after being purchased following a maiden win at Calder. He showed little rust in winning the Swale by over nine lengths, and his Beyer Speed Figure top leapt from 84 to 110.

With so many occasions to be dumbfounded, a handicapper's last and best line of defense is to get a square price whenever backing a 3-year-old to do something for the first time.

Those who didn't think Peace Rules was strictly a turf horse got 9-1 for their opinion in the Louisiana Derby.

Those who thought Alysweep could stretch out to two turns got 9-1 as well, when the one-time $75,000 claim led eight others on a merry chase in last Sunday's Gotham. Alysweep, who is now targeted for the Wood Memorial, is a fairly typical example of a 3-year-old that gives horseplayers fits: A bad loss at 6-5, followed by an immediate return to top form at a big price.

Roar Emotion vulnerable in Cicada

Three-year-old fillies are in the spotlight at Aqueduct Saturday, on what will be only the second day of racing on the main track. The Cicada Stakes is headed by Roar Emotion, who ran two Beyers of 92 on dry tracks at age 2, which are faster than anything her five rivals have run at age 3.

Even so, Roar Emotion might be considered vulnerable on several counts:

* She hasn't been out in six months (though she did win at the Cicada's seven-furlong distance as a first-time starter).

* Before winning the Demoiselle, she was beaten in an entry-level allowance on a wet track at 15 cents to $1. The weekend forecast here called for hit-and-miss showers.

* The list of accomplishments of those behind her in the Demoiselle was short. Runner-up Savedbythelight was coming off a maiden win on turf and a fourth-place finish in the Grade 3 Tempted. Third-place finisher Feisty Step was fresh off a maiden win second time out.

Besides Roar Emotion, the only other Cicada entrant ever to race at seven furlongs is Laurel shipper Boxer Girl, who scored her third straight victory at the distance in the Jameela for Maryland-breds last time out.

"We're just taking a shot," said trainer Michael Zweisler, whose record in graded stakes since the start of 2002 is listed in Daily Racing Form's Trainer Form as: (0 .00 $0.00).

"What I really like about the Cicada is that [Boxer Girl] is three-for-three at this distance," Zweisler said.

Boxer Girl has never raced on an off track, but is bred to handle the going. The two remaining stakes winners in the field, Cyber Secret and Ladyecho, have raced on wet tracks with discouraging results.

Ladyecho was soundly beaten in Laurel's Selima is the slop last fall.

Cyber Secret was eased in the slop in the Astarita last Oct. 13 at Belmont, but returned less than a month later to win an allowance sprint on Aqueduct's main track.

"She went into the Astarita great and came out of it great, so I have to think she doesn't like it wet," said trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. "I always thought she'd be best going seven-eighths to a mile around one turn."

Indeed, Cyber Secret displays a profile common to seven-furlong winners at Aqueduct in the spring and fall - a horse turning back from routes who has been showing speed, but weakening in the late stages.

The indications are that Dutrow is right and Cyber Secret will love seven furlongs, provided she gets her track.

But as with most 3-year-olds of spring, it's mere speculation until they actually do it, and that is why we find them to be so fascinating.