03/12/2002 12:00AM

Steady diet of grass the way to go for Mountain Rage

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Mountain Rage may yet be a derby horse. It just won't be the one in Kentucky.

A 3-year-old who is strictly a turf specialist, Mountain Rage will forsake the Kentucky Derby meat grinder and focus instead on becoming a top 3-year-old on grass. Good move. Races such as the Del Mar and Hollywood derbies beckon, but not before Mountain Rage starts favored Thursday at Santa Anita in the $75,000 Academy Road Stakes.

The mile turf race for 3-year-olds drew 17 entrants and was split. Mountain Rage drew the tougher division (race 3), which includes Baldwin runner-up Red Briar, and Turf Paradise runner-up National Park. Race 7 includes impressive maiden winners Royal Gem and Prairie Predator, in addition to a promising import, Saphir Indien.

Following a three-length win in the $76,000 Hill Rise on Jan. 6, Mountain Rage was considered for a dirt campaign. His main-track works produced fast times, but trainer Bob Baffert could see he was not as effective on dirt as on turf. "He's been working well, but he scrambles on dirt," Baffert said.

After consulting with owners Jill Moss and George Jacobs, Baffert elected to keep Mountain Rage on turf, a surface over which he has won two of three races, including the Grade 3 Generous Stakes. Overall, the gray has won three of seven races and earned $200,880. David Flores rides Mountain Rage.

Red Briar stretches out to two turns after a second-place finish in the Grade 3 Baldwin, a sprint. The 3-for-6 Red Briar has been a project for trainer Jenine Sahadi and jockey Gary Stevens. "He's a very difficult horse; I call him the monster," Sahadi said. "He loves to dump riders, he bites and savages people. Stevens has put a lot of time in working him." It nearly paid off in the Baldwin, a fast-paced race in which Red Briar's rally fell short by a head.

The question Thursday is whether he can stay two turns, or whether the runner-up finish in the Baldwin was primarily a function of the fast early pace.

In race 7, trainer Jim Cassidy unveils a colt who has been training super for his U.S. debut. Jockey Kent Desormeaux told Cassidy that Saphir Indien "is a freak," and Cassidy expects a good effort first out. "He's working super, and he'll get the mile," Cassidy said. "Whether he gets it the first time, I don't know."