03/22/2002 12:00AM

Tough lineup in Explosive Bid

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PHOENIX - The Explosive Bid Handicap at Fair Grounds may have just Grade 2 status now, but I expect that to change. Sunday's running has again lured a Grade 1 field with a Grade 1 purse ($700,000). Save for Breeders' Cup Mile winner Val Royal, who's in Dubai, nearly anyone who's anyone in the middle-distance turf division will run.

Despite the obvious depth and power in the lineup, much of the focus figures to center on two horses: Hap and Beat Hollow.

Hap isn't really a true miler; he's not a true stayer either. That means the nine furlongs of the Explosive Bid is the perfect leaping-off point for his 2002 campaign.

Trainer Bill Mott reports Hap is as good as ever. "He's got as much in him now as he did when he made his first start last year," Mott said. Last year, Hap debuted with an easy win in the Dixie on the Preakness undercard.

Hap deserves another crack at the Breeders' Cup Mile, in which he ran eighth two yars ago. Anyone who saw him win the Keeneland Mile with a 110 Beyer had to be impressed. Maybe he can't quite accelerate like Val Royal, but he can move earlier and is more tractable, giving him first run.

But he's going to need all of his power in the Explosive Bid. Beat Hollow has the potential to be a monster. This former European runner was second in the English Derby, so you know he's no slouch. He missed most of last year, but then shipped to the States and to Bobby Frankel. In his U.S. debut at Santa Anita in January he blew the doors off a good allowance field. Sunday brings a much tougher test, but his quality is already proven.

Beat Hollow isn't the only dangerous Californian. Designed for Luck was a good third in the Kilroe Mile recently, finishing just ahead of Val Royal while narrowly behind Decarchy and Sarafan. But Designed for Luck had an ideal trip that day on his home course. At least he has some tactical speed, so he figures to be well positioned likely pacesetter North East Bound.

Sarafan could be the spoiler. He has been trying to break through at the top level of competition. It hasn't happened yet, but it isn't for lack of effort. His rally just failed to take the Kilroe Mile. It's noteworthy that his trainer, Neil Drysdale, was going to also send top turf runner Irish Prize for this race but changed his mind. Is that a stroke of confidence in Sarafan?

Derby outlook

I really have no idea what to make of San Felipe winner Medaglia d'Oro. Was that race a fluke or the real deal? If it was real, why did his previous owners sell? Presumably we'll know more after he runs in the Blue Grass.

Runner-up U S S Tinosa, meanwhile, has my interest. Not only did he finish well, but he also had to make two or three different moves in the race after having his momentum halted. Watch his finish closely in the Santa Anita Derby. He continues to make steady progress, which is what you want to see heading into the Derby. He reminds me a bit of Real Quiet.

I was impressed as anyone with Harlan's Holiday in the Florida Derby. But let's be a bit careful. After all, there remain considerable quality questions about those he beat. Blue Burner is no one's Derby favorite. Booklet got taken out early. Yet in spite of a suicide pace, no one else really rallied. High Star bled and fell apart. Maybe there just wasn't that much in the race.

That said, Harlan's Holiday is as deserving as any horse to be the pre-Derby favorite. I just don't want to go overboard on a horse who lost the last two times he was looked in the eye by another horse.