01/21/2002 12:00AM

Three flops, only one worrisome

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NEW YORK - Monarchos, winner of last year's Kentucky Derby, and Siphonic and Harlan's Holiday, who have Derby aspirations of their own, all lost as odds-on favorites Saturday. You can at least find a silver lining in Siphonic and Harlan's Holiday's losses. But it's hard to find anything positive about Monarchos's comeback.

And that's a concern, because a lot of people have banked on Monarchos to add quality and depth to this year's handicap division, which is thin because of the traditional migration of many of last year's stars to the breeding shed. Tiznow, Aptitude, Albert the Great, Captain Steve, and last year's best 3-year-old, Point Given, have all left the track. Replacements are needed, and the reigning Derby winner would be a suitable, and welcome one.

But you have to wonder about Monarchos. With the Donn Handicap on Feb. 9 as his first serious goal of this season, he didn't have to win Saturday's non-winners-of-four-other-than allowance at Gulfstream Park. All he had to do was run encouragingly.

Instead, Monarchos had no response at any point. It's one thing to be beaten by Mongoose, who at one point was called by his previous trainer, Bill Mott, the best 2-year-old he ever had, and who now seems to have finally found himself with three strong wins in a row. But Mongoose clobbered Monarchos by nearly nine lengths. Moreover, Monarchos was seriously outfinished for second by Watch Your Pennies, who was nearly 47-1 in the five horse field.

This performance, and a scrutinization of Monarchos's record last year, makes you wonder what he can really bring to the table this year. No one was more impressed with the way Monarchos won last year's Florida Derby than me. The wide, sustained move he made that day propelled him right to the top of my Kentucky Derby list.

After Monarchos won the Kentucky Derby, there was much hype about the decisiveness of his score (by nearly five lengths) and the fact that his time (1:59.97) was the second fastest in Derby history.

Largely overlooked was the fact that Monarchos's Derby win was greatly enabled by a suicidal early pace, and that his time was due entirely to a Churchill Downs surface that was one of the fastest in the history of North American racing. Not surprisingly, at least to those who kept those last two points in mind, Monarchos was soundly beaten in both the Preakness and Belmont before going on the shelf.

Not that Monarchos is incapable of playing effectively at the top of his division. But he has work to do to prove that he can.

Siphonic went into the Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita no worse than co-future book favorite for the Derby with Johannesburg, and despite his loss at 1-10, he may still be in the same position. That is because, unlike Monarchos, Siphonic had tangible excuses.

The head-on camera shot coming out of the gate, and the photograph on page one of today's Form, show that Siphonic stumbled badly. That put him in an immediate deep hole. The pace, while honest, wasn't so crazy fast or contested to help him in his game of catch-up.

Nevertheless, Siphonic put in a strong four-wide run around the far turn to reach near even terms for the lead turning for home. But the bad start and the quick, wide move exacted a toll. When it became clear that Siphonic wasn't going to outfinish Labamta Babe, and had the second spot clinched, his rider, Jerry Bailey, wrapped up. That contributed to the 5 1/2-margin between Labamta Babe and Siphonic at the wire. Take nothing away from Labamta Babe, however, who kicked strongly through the stretch in what was by far the best race of his career.

These excuses were thoroughly legitimate, and when you factor in that the Santa Catalina was just the first of three races that are designed to have Siphonic at his peak on Derby Day, then his loss didn't really mean much. Still, why do I hear this inner voice telling me that I would rather see Siphonic overcome some adversity before I really lock on to him?

As for the Derby prospects of Harlan's Holiday, despite winning 4 of 6 last year, he may only be second best in his barn behind Repent, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club and second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. And even though he's out of an Affirmed mare, he's a son of Harlan, so there are those who will question his long distance ability.

As 3-year-old debuts go, Harlan's Holiday's second to Booklet in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream was as solid as can be without winning. He was farther back early than he had ever been before, by design, no doubt, and was four wide around both turns, which can be good on rare occasion at Gulfstream, but not Saturday, Harlan's Holiday was still getting to Booklet at the end of the Holy Bull even though Booklet enjoyed the huge advantage of being unmolested on the early lead.

Harlan's Holiday may have been six lengths behind Siphonic at the end of Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last October, but this is a new year, and this was, for him, a good start.