03/13/2003 1:00AM

Track gives distinct edge to speed


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Track biases have been well documented over the years, especially when they affected the outcomes of major races. The deep rail at Belmont Park for the 2001 Breeders' Cup and the paved highway that was Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day that year are two examples that readily come to mind.

One of the the key questions in Saturday's Florida Derby is whether Gulfstream Park's main track, which has been very fast and speed-favoring for the past several weeks, will affect the results of the $1 million race that is an important stepping-stone to the Kentucky Derby.

Gulfstream has traditionally been fast and speed conducive, and this winter has been no exception. Two former claiming horses, Boston Brat and Native Heir, have already equaled or established three track records during the meet. Last Saturday, a 3-year-old first-time starter, Grand Hombre, ran six furlongs in 1:08.66, less than a second off the track record shared by renowned sprinters Mr. Prospector and Artax.

"The track is just way too fast and, yes, I'm concerned about how it will affect the race on Saturday," said Manny Tortora, who will send out the late-running Supah Blitz in the Florida Derby. "It's ridiculous the way they've got the track here lately. Horses coming off the pace have had little or no chance to win. And it doesn't seem like they're trying to do much to slow it down either. In fact, if the track doesn't change I'm not going to run many more horses at this meet after Florida Derby Day. I'll just wait until Calder reopens."

Trainer Mickey Goldfine also has a late-runner, Senor Swinger. He, too, is hoping the track will not be biased on Saturday.

"The hardness of the track doesn't concern me," said Goldfine. "But it's obviously very fast and speed biased and that bothers me because if it's the same way Saturday it will certainly hurt my chances of winning. But I'm not going to change my thinking or this horse's style for one race. I just hope he can get up in time."

Edgar Prado, who won the Florida Derby from just off a hotly contested pace with Harlan's Holiday last winter, will be aboard Senor Swinger, looking to win the race for the second straight year.

"You don't see too many horses winning from off the pace these days unless the races are on the grass," said Prado. "And in many cases I've tried to keep my horses closer to the lead than I otherwise might have. Hopefully, that won't be the situation on Saturday."

Nobody understands or plays the racetrack bias any better than Jerry Bailey, who will accept his record-tying 18th Florida Derby mount when he steps aboard Empire Maker. Craig Perret has also ridden in 18 Florida Derbies.

"It always seems they've got this racetrack like a highway for big races," said Bailey. "And if it is like that again it will impact the race somewhat. Especially since the horse to beat [Trust N Luck] is a speed horse."

Hiles: I need Midway Cat all year

As a native Kentuckian, trainer Rick Hiles would love to start a horse in the Kentucky Derby. His best chance could be with Midway Cat, who will try to improve upon his third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth when he runs in Saturday's Florida Derby.

Still, Hiles knows he needs Midway Cat to carry the colors of his six-horse stable all year long and won't push the horse just to make the Derby.

"He needs to keep us going. It's not like I got a lot of replacements,'' said Hiles, who owns Midway Cat in partnership with Ralph Buckley, Robert McMahan, and Leroy Mudd. "I will not get caught up in that. I've seen the Derby every year since 1973, and that thing will grind 'em up and spit 'em out. It's not like I got 30 horses in training and 10 2-year-olds on the farm. We've got one 2-year-old.''

Hiles purchased Midway Cat for $20,000 out of the 2001 Keeneland September yearling sale. Hiles was interested in Midway Cat, a son of Sir Cat, because he was a half-brother to Midway Magistrate, a horse Hiles claimed for $25,000 who then earned more than $500,000 and won a couple of stakes races.

"This horse is a pretty nice horse and can make a lot of money for my partnership,'' Hiles said. "I don't want to have one in the Derby just to have one in the Derby. If he can't be one of the top five picks, I really don't want to be in there to start with.''

Hiles has enjoyed a successful Gulfstream meet as he also has sent out the filly San Dare to win both the Honey Fox and The Very One handicaps, both Grade 3 events. She is expected to run next in the Orchid Handicap here on March 23.

Harlan's Holiday ready for Dubai

Concerns about war in the region not withstanding, the connections of Harlan's Holiday are getting excited about running in the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 29.

Harlan's Holiday, the Donn Handicap winner, fueled that enthusiasm Thursday morning with a solid five-furlong workout timed in 1:00.40 over a fast Gulfstream main track. It was the fastest of 23 moves at the distance.

Harlan's Holiday worked in company with Hennessy's Best, a 4-year-old claimer who led his stablemate by a couple of lengths before Harlan's Holiday went past inside the eighth pole. John Velazquez, the regular rider of Harlan's Holiday, was aboard for the move.

Velazquez, whose wife, Leona, is expecting the couple's second child in early April, has some concerns about the unsettled situation in the Middle East, but said he does want to participate in the race.

"I want to go, I don't want to lose him, he's a good horse, and it's my main client,'' Velazquez said. "I think he has a good chance. If he runs back to the race here, he's going to be really tough.''

McGaughey: One prep for the Oaks is fine

Storm Flag Flying had another easy workout Thursday, breezing four furlongs in 50.20 seconds at Gulfstream under exercise rider Cecil Putnam.

Trainer Shug McGaughey said the champion 2-year-old filly of 2002 remains on target for the $150,000 Comely Stakes at Aqueduct on April 18, which will be her only prep before the May 2 Kentucky Oaks.

"I think I have a great bottom in her,'' McGaughey said. "We'll just see how she runs.''

McGaughey said he came to south Florida this winter with the idea of starting Storm Flag Flying's 3-year-old season in the Comely. He said he only thought about running her in Friday's Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream because she seemed to be coming around quickly.

But when the temperatures got hot, McGaughey backed off on the filly's training and he elected to stick with his original plan.

McGaughey is likely to send Storm Flag Flying back to New York when Belmont Park's main track opens for training, typically on April 1.

- additional reporting by David Grening