01/17/2002 12:00AM

Time for 3-year-olds to get serious


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - One of the greatest seasons in all of sports gets under way in earnest Saturday with the running of the Holy Bull Stakes here at Gulfstream Park and the Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita. The Kentucky Derby, first of the Triple Crown events, is 15 weeks away, but time flies when you are having fun, and the 3-year-old classic season is great fun.

In the West, all eyes will be on Siphonic, smashing winner of the Hollywood Futurity and the early favorite for the Santa Anita Derby. At Gulfstream the issue seems not quite so clear-cut. Nokoma, runner-up in Aqueduct's Remsen, will have his backers. So will Harlan's Holiday, who was second to Siphonic in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland and who won the Iroquois Mile at Churchill Downs.

And then there is Booklet, winner of the final event in Calder's Florida Stallion series. A Notebook colt, Booklet was sold privately at year's end to John Oxley of Tulsa, Okla., whose Monarchos won the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby last year. Booklet raced five times at 2, won four times, and had a reasonable excuse for his lone defeat.

"We've only had him since Jan. 1," trainer John Ward said, "but in that brief time he has impressed me. He is a colt who understands how to train long and who relaxes in his works. He seems to have more range than I thought he did.

"We didn't buy him as a Kentucky Derby prospect. We bought him as a 3-year-old who could be serviceable throughout the year. But he might come along for us."

Booklet is not a big horse, Ward observes, but the trainer thinks he has a very good shoulder and a very good hip. Ward says he is intelligent and likes the way he has settled into a new environment. To limit the number of changes Booklet will have, Eibar Coa, who has ridden him to stakes victories in his last two starts, will ride him again in the Holy Bull.

Ward will have a busy Saturday, for he will also saddle Monarchos for his first start since the Belmont Stakes last June. Monarchos, a 4-year-old son of Maria's Mon, will run in a prep for the $500,000 Donn Handicap on Feb. 9.

"Monarchos came out of the Belmont with a small crack in the carpal bone of a knee," Ward said. "We gave him plenty of time and he started back in training toward the end of November. He's trained very well and I think he is a 20 percent better horse this year than last."

Ward plans to send Monarchos to the West Coast after the Donn Handicap for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 2. There can be no stronger expression of confidence.