03/12/2002 1:00AM

Time for cream of the crop to rise


LAS VEGAS - Last weekend's Louisiana Derby was the beginning of the really significant prep races for the Kentucky Derby, and Repent and Easyfromthegitgo emerged as the best 3-year-olds from Fair Grounds. Easyfromthegitgo (by Dehere) continues to improve, and his pedigree suggests he should get the Derby distance. Despite his unsettling penchant for not changing leads, Repent (Louis Quatorze) nevertheless finds a way to win, and his talent is unquestionable.

Florida, New York, and California host major Derby preps this weekend with the Florida Derby, Gotham Stakes, and San Felipe Stakes. At one mile, the Gotham sets up as an entertaining race. Saarland (Unbridled) and Mayakovsky (Matty G) make their belated 2002 debuts, where they will face the undefeated Saratoga Blues (Twining).

As his pedigree (Matty G out of a Raise a Man mare) suggests, Mayakovsky was brilliant at 2 and is cut out to be a sprinter/miler. While he would be only a pace factor in the Kentucky Derby, he is an exciting prospect at the Gotham distance. Saratoga Blues has yet to be tested, and a battle with Mayakovsky is expected on the front end, which could set things up for the late-running Saarland.

Of all the runners in the Gotham, the one with the most potential is Saarland, whose pedigree is tailor-made for the Derby. Unbridled has long been known as a source of stamina, and Saarland's dam, Versailles Treaty (Danzig), won the Alabama Stakes and twice finished second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. His female family produced General Assembly, Exclusive Native, Out of Place, Chief Honcho, Gold Fever, Lead Kindly Light, and American Chance.

While he may be a bit rusty after a nearly four-month layoff following his Remsen Stakes victory, Saarland needs only to run well to propel him to the Wood Memorial, which could set him up perfectly for the Derby. Most of this year's leading 3-year-olds have distance limitations, but there is no question that Saarland is bred to run all day.

The San Felipe shapes up as a battle between Siphonic (Siphon), who seeks to regain the luster lost in the Santa Catalina, in which he stumbled badly at the start, and a late-bloomer, Sunday Break (Forty Niner). Sunday Break's stock is significantly higher than it should be because of the respect given to his trainer, Neil Drysdale. Sunday Break is certainly bred to win at 1 1/16 miles, but as it is for most runners by Forty Niner, the Derby distance seems beyond his scope. Forty Niner was very effective at 1 1/4 miles, but his offspring are better at middle distances. An exception was Belmont Stakes winner Editor's Note.

At 1 1/8 miles, the most important Derby prep this weekend is the Florida Derby. Booklet (Notebook) wired his fields in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth Stakes, both at 1 1/16 miles, but the water gets deeper with the extra sixteenth of a mile. Booklet will not want any part of 1 1/4 miles, but he will try and take the field as far as he can in the Florida Derby. Harlan's Holiday (Harlan) was unable to run down Booklet in the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth, but should finally turn the tables with the added distance.

But Booklet and Harlan's Holiday have more to worry about than each other.

High Star (Private Terms), who finished third to Repent in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at 2, has run well in two Gulfstream appearances this winter. High Star has a tremendous upside, as he possesses the Rasmussen Factor (being inbred to a superior female within five generations through different individuals) and is bred to appreciate longer distances. He is inbred to Busanda, winner of the Suburban Handicap against males and the dam of Buckpasser.

Nokoma (Pulpit), second to Saarland in the Remsen Stakes, is from his sire's first crop, and his Holy Bull flop should be dismissed, as he was a determined winner of a recent allowance race. Nokoma's female family has been quite active lately. He is a half-brother to the dam of Bella Bellucci, one of last year's best 2-year-old fillies, and Japanese sensation Kurofune. Nokoma is also a half-brother to multiple stakes winner Brought to Mind. A good showing in the Florida Derby catapults him squarely into the Derby picture.

Blue Burner (French Deputy) finished third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, and the lightly raced colt has plenty of room for improvement. His group-placed dam is a half-sister to the dam of Abaginone and Cara Rafaela, and other notable stakes winners from this line are Northern Fable, Fairway Fable, Muhtathir, Hook and Ladder, Fairway Fun, Fairway Flyer, Adhocracy, Golden Par, Torsion, and Fun Forever.

The forgotten horse in the Florida Derby is Stephentown (Wild Again), whose scintillating allowance victory was subsequently overshadowed by a dull effort in the Fountain of Youth. Stephentown, whose status for the race is still in the air, showed too much ability in his three starts before the Fountain of Youth to dismiss him after one clunker. His dam is a full sister to the dam of Formal Gold, one of the most exciting horses of his generation.

The Florida Derby usually begins separating the men from the boys, and the race for the Kentucky Derby begins in earnest on Saturday.