03/20/2006 1:00AM

Switch provides right spark

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ARCADIA, Calif. - John Shirreffs was rubbing elbows with the grandstand crowd as A. P. Warrior and the rest of the San Felipe Stakes field moved into line last Saturday afternoon. An acquaintance wandered by and noticed that Shirreffs was in the right church, but the wrong pew.

"Isn't that your lucky spot over there?" Shirreffs was asked.

"Yes," he said, "and I'll be moving over there in just a minute."

Mark it with an X and rope it off, because that is one very lucky spot. Shirreffs had a great view as A. P. Warrior fought hard and held off the closing charge of Point Determined to win the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe by half a length, with heavily favored Bob and John another two lengths farther back in a photo for third.

Just like that, Shirreffs went from the 2006 Triple Crown sidelines to a seat at the big table. Until the second week of February, A. P. Warrior had been trained by Eoin Harty, best known for his work with such Godolphin and Sheikh Mohammed runners as Tempera, Street Cry, Essence of Dubai, and Ruler's Court. But after a pair of fourth-place finishes, owner Stan Fulton gave the word that he wanted to make a change, and he wasn't talking about the horse, especially since A. P. Warrior cost $1.3 million as a yearling.

The Derby has been very much on Fulton's mind since he entered the ownership end of the sport about five years ago and hired Eric Anderson as a consultant. Since then, Fulton made it as far as the Kentucky Derby entries with San Felipe runner-up St Averil, who was scratched from the 2004 field with a bad foot. In 2005, Fulton had high hopes for Uncle Denny, winner of the El Camino Real Derby, but a chipped ankle knocked him out.

"I guarantee I will have a horse in next year's Derby - maybe even an entry," Fulton said not long after the Uncle Denny disappointment.

As Fulton's racing manager, Anderson was the man who had to convey the bad news to Harty.

"It was very tough," Anderson said. "Eoin is a great horseman, and he does get run from his horses. But there's more than one way to achieve results. It might just take tweaking it just a little bit, one little thing to change, like turning American pop music on the barn radio instead of Latino music, or feeding rolled oats instead of crimped oats. That's over-simplified, but the point is to get inside their head, figure out what they are doing and why they're doing it."

Since Harty often sports a Yankees ballcap and takes seriously their fate, he understands how managers are routinely hired and fired, even though he has yet to train for George Steinbrenner.

At the very least, Harty can take some consolation from the company he has joined. Not even Hall of Fame credentials protect a trainer from losing a good horse.

Ruhlmann was a brilliant 3-year-old for Bobby Frankel, winning the 1988 El Camino Real Derby and the Jamaica. After a barn switch, he evolved into a different kind of good horse for Charlie Whittingham, for whom he won the Santa Anita Handicap and four other top-class stakes.

Island Whirl was very good horse for Wayne Lukas at ages 3 and 4, taking the Woodward, the Super Derby, and the Malibu. At 5, Island Whirl was transferred to Lazaro Barrera, class intact and still good enough to win the 1983 Hollywood Gold Cup and Whitney Handicap.

And certainly south Florida legend Frank Gomez did nothing wrong with Princess Rooney at ages 2 and 3, winning the Frizette, the Ashland, and the Kentucky Oaks. When she turned 4, in 1984, it was Neil Drysdale who trained her to win the Vanity, the Spinster, and the inaugural Breeders' Cup Distaff.

It was no real surprise that Fulton turned to Shirreffs, and not simply because of his upset victory with Giacomo in the 2005 Kentucky Derby. Shirreffs worked for Eric Anderson at Carl and Olivia Cannata's Lakeview Farm in the early 1980's and left an indelible impression.

"We didn't have the top-of-the-line breeding that John's handling now," Anderson said. "But he'd still get inside those horses' heads, talk to them, rub on them, and more than likely figure out what was going on. He might not be the most personable when it comes to communicating, but he will get the job done."

A. P. Warrior will need to do a lot more than win the San Felipe, though, if the Harty-to-Shirreffs move is going to gain any kind of historical foothold. A. P. Warrior certainly looks the part of a $1.3 million colt, and he has the breeding to match. He is by A.P. Indy and out of a Quiet American mare (just like Saint Liam). However, he has yet to put a pair of top stakes efforts back to back.

He will get his chance in the Santa Anita Derby on April 8 against Brother Derek, the top colt in the West. In their only encounter, Brother Derek beat A. P. Warrior by three-quarters of a length in the Norfolk Stakes last October.

"All I can say is that the people on the Fulton team are licking their chops to get another crack at Brother Derek," Anderson said. "Brother Derek's a tremendous horse, but right now I think A. P. Warrior is on top of his game."