03/10/2004 1:00AM

Tapit faces difficult challenge

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Michael Dickinson has pulled off some amazing feats with horses coming back from extended vacations. He sent out Da Hoss to capture the 1998 Breeders' Cup Mile off a two-year hiatus with only a single prep race under his belt and A Huevo to win the 2003 De Francis Dash in just his third start following a four-year layoff.

But even Dickinson admits winning Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby with Tapit, who has not started since he captured the Laurel Futurity on Nov. 15, might be just a little too much to ask.

"Not only hasn't this horse run since November but he also went 19 days without a breeze and missed an additional five days of training due to a shin problem, so it's like he's coming into the race off two layoffs," said Dickinson. "Obviously, he's not going to be 100 percent fit, and I'd be happy if we could finish third. This is not a race for us to win at all costs. Our main job Saturday is to teach him to relax."

The Kentucky Derby, not the Florida Derby, has been and remains Dickinson's primary goal for Tapit.

"Our training program has always been geared to have him peak on May 1," said Dickinson. "If we had been able to run in the Risen Star, as originally planned, we'd have been spot on for the Florida Derby. Right now we're not on target for March 13, but we're still on target for May 1. Tapit is a very good horse, but he's only won a Grade 3 at this point and he's still got a lot to prove."

Prado gets acquainted with Tapit

Jockey Edgar Prado met his Florida Derby mount Tapit for the first time Wednesday. Prado was aboard the big gray for a light jog and gallop and also took him to the starting gate.

"He acts very professional," Prado said. "He did everything good, like an old pro."

Tapit arrived in south Florida on Tuesday afternoon, and Dickinson wanted Prado to gallop him in the three days leading up to the race.

Prado becomes the third jockey to ride Tapit in a race. Jose Caraballo rode Tapit to his maiden win at Delaware Park in October and Ramon Dominguez was aboard for Tapit's Laurel Futurity score in December. The decision to go with Prado, Dickinson said, was made by owner Ron Winchell and racing manager David Fiske.

In other Prado news, he has picked up the mount on Storm Flag Flying for the $150,000 Distaff Breeders' Cup Handicap at Aqueduct on March 27. John Velazquez, Storm Flag Flying's regular rider, will be in Dubai that day.

Velazquez test-drives Hard Buck

One of the horses Velazquez will ride in Dubai that night is Hard Buck in the $2 million Dubai Sheema Classic at Nad Al Sheba Race Course.

On Wednesday morning, Velazquez got his initial feel for Hard Buck as he guided him through a half-mile breeze in 49 seconds over the Gulfstream turf course. All turf works are done in the center of the course around a set of orange cones known as dogs.

"He did it really easy, just cruising," Velazquez said. "He took me for a little ride, I just guided him around the turn. He's very nice, classy."

The last time Velazquez saw Hard Buck was on Feb. 22 when Hard Buck rallied past Velazquez and Balto Star to win the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap by a head.

"I thought my horse ran great and he came by me and ran better than my horse did," Velazquez said. "In a race like this [the Sheema Classic] you want to ride this one."

Hard Buck leaves for Dubai on Saturday and trainer Ken McPeek hopes to get two works in him before the race.

Smoocher draws tough post

Smoocher was the last of the 10 entrants to throw his hat into the Florida Derby ring, and unfortunately for trainer David Bell he drew post position 10 for the race.

Smoocher finished a badly beaten fifth in the Holy Bull and fourth in a second-level allowance race earlier in the meet. He was entered for dirt only and subsequently scratched from an allowance race carded for the grass here Wednesday. Despite entering him in that race, Bell said he has been thinking about the Florida Derby right along.

"We put him in Wednesday to keep our options open," said Bell. "But he's a horse who has been coming around lately and he worked exceptionally well with blinkers on. We also changed his shoes a little bit because he had a foot bruise which might have affected his performance in his first two starts at the meet. Except for Read the Footnotes, this field isn't overly tough, it's a $1 million purse, and his performance Saturday should give us an idea which way to go the rest of the year."

Bourbonnais ready for Skip Away

Bourbonnais, who made an eye-catching North American debut when winning a second-level allowance race here Feb. 15, could be the one to beat in Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 Skip Away Stakes.

Though he had more success on turf in Europe and Dubai as a 2- and 3-year-old, his connections always thought he'd handle the dirt. Trainer Tom Albertrani said Bourbonnais bled when eighth in a Group 1 in France last March, which precipitated the decision to send him to North America. He didn't arrive in New York until September, and by the time he was ready to run, the major races had all been run.

Bourbonnais, a son of Singspiel, won an off-the-turf, second-level allowance race here Feb. 15 by 4 3/4 lengths and earned a 104 Beyer Speed Figure.

"He ran well. It was the first time he ran in this country with the help of Lasix, maybe that's what he needed," Albertrani said.

Jerry Bailey will retain the mount.

My Ro finally gets on turf

My Ro is unbeaten in four starts on dirt, but the breeding on her dam's side cries turf. On Wednesday morning, My Ro got her first feel of Gulfstream Park's turf course, working a half-mile in 49.40 seconds under jockey Craig Perret.

Trainer Dale Romans saw enough in the move to convince him to run My Ro in Saturday's $60,000 Marshua's River Stakes for fillies and mares at one mile.

"Looked good to me," Romans said.

My Ro is by Danzig out of the mare Romy, who won several turf stakes including the De La Rose Handicap over this course in 1997.

"With her pedigree we had to try it, and this looked like a good spot this weekend," Romans said.

There could be an overflow field entered in the Marshua's River. The field will be limited to 12 starters with two also-eligibles carded. Among the definite starters are All the Honor, Artist Johanna, Cellars Shiraz, Changing World, Coney Kittey, Dedication, Gypsy Dot, Hermans Honor, and Ocean Drive.

Menifeeque to Tampa Oaks

Trainer Bill White has decided not to throw promising filly Menifeeque to the wolves in Saturday's Forward Gal Stakes, and will instead ship the 3-year-old filly to Tampa for Sunday's Florida Oaks.

The Forward Gal will feature the sensational Madcap Escapade along with graded stakes winners La Reina and Wacky Patty. The three are the only confirmed starters for the Grade 3 dash. Menifeeque is coming off a second-level allowance win at seven furlongs and has won two of her last three starts.

"Tampa will be an easier spot, and the distance of the Forward Gal, seven furlongs, over that very fast racetrack [at Gulfstream] doesn't play in our favor," said White.

- additional reporting by David Grening