01/17/2002 1:00AM

A stakes where favorites often fail

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Betting prep races like Saturday's $100,000 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park can be tricky business. Especially when the two likely favorites, Harlan's Holiday and Nokoma, are using the race as a stepping-stone to bigger and better things, not only later in the meet but also hopefully on the road to the Kentucky Derby.

The Grade 3 Holy Bull will be decided at 1 1/16 miles and is the first major local test for 3-year-olds being pointed towards the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth Stakes and $1 million Florida Derby later in the meet. The Holy Bull highlights a 12-race program that also features the return of reigning Kentucky Derby champion Monarchos, who launches his 2002 campaign in an allowance earlier on the card.

If recent history has taught any lessons it would be to tread lightly on the highly touted 2-year-olds using the Holy Bull to prep for the Fountain of Youth and beyond. The last three winners of the race, Radical Riley, Hal's Hope, and Grits'n Hard Toast, went off at 15-1, 40-1, and 15-1, respectively.

Harlan's Holiday is the more experienced and well prepared of this year's favorites. And trainer Ken McPeek said he expects his colt to be 100 per cent.

"He's done all we've asked since he's been here," said McPeek. "He knows how to win and he's ready to win if everything goes his way, although our main objective Saturday is to teach him to rate; to get him to lay a couple of lengths off the pace and kick from there."

Harlan's Holiday has won 4 of 6, including the Grade 3 Iroquois in his juvenile finale. Regular rider Tony D'Amico has the mount.

Trainer Todd Pletcher is being a bit more cautious when it comes to Nokoma's chances in the Holy Bull. In fact he may wait until the morning of the race before deciding whether to even start Nokoma, runner-up in the Remsen.

"I don't want him to have a gut wrencher this early in the season" said Pletcher. "I think the horse is ready to run and is doing well but I haven't cranked him where I think he's going to run the best race of his life on Saturday. Although he's run only three times he showed he was very professional in the Remsen. My biggest concern at this point is that he continues to move forward with every start."

Nokoma, who finished fourth while racing greenly in his debut at seven furlongs, registered a game victory when stretched out around two turns in his second start, then missed a neck to Saarland following a game stretch run in the Remsen. John Velazquez will again be aboard.

Monarchos is not the only horse trainer John Ward and owner John Oxley will start on Saturday. They will also send out their recently acquired Booklet as the probable third choice in the Holy Bull.

Oxley purchased Booklet privately earlier this month. A son of Notebook, Booklet won 4 of 5 starts at 2, including the In Reality Stakes, the finale of Calder's rich Florida Stallion Series.

For those who feel history will repeat and another upset is in the making in the Holy Bull the candidates include Thiscannonsloaded, Speedy Leon, O'Rocky, and Thatsallmon.

Thiscannonsloaded already has a race over the track, finishing a game second behind the stretch-running Blue Burner under allowance conditions on opening day, and figures to contest the pace with Booklet.

O'Rocky and Speedy Leon finished first and second, respectively, in Calder's What a Pleasure Stakes to close out their 2-year-old campaigns. Speedy Leon comes from the same connections that upset the 2000 Holy Bull with Hal's Hope.

Thatsallmon is the least experienced member of the field and has not started since winning his maiden at Turfway Park on Dec. 1.

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