03/11/2004 1:00AM

Weekend's focus on 3-year-olds


NEW YORK - The 3-year-old picture should be a lot clearer by Monday morning after the most interesting and important weekend of sophomore racing so far this year.

At Gulfstream Saturday, the two fastest 3-year-olds in the country square off when Read the Footnotes meets Value Plus in the Florida Derby, on a card where the well-regarded Eurosilver also runs in the Swale. Later that afternoon, unbeaten Halfbridled makes her season debut in the Santa Anita Oaks en route to a possible run against males in the Kentucky Derby. The next day, champion 2-year-old Action This Day returns in the San Felipe.

Other than a winner, what should we be looking for?

Read the Footnotes should be regarded as the clear leader of the division right now, off daylight victories in the Remsen, last year's fastest graded stakes race for 2-year-olds, and the Fountain of Youth, the fastest 3-year-old stakes race this year. Perhaps a victory in the division's first Grade 1 race of the year will win him some overdue acclaim, and the race is his to lose.

Only two of his opponents offer intrigue or a hint of serious competition on paper. Value Plus's Beyer Speed Figure of 108 in an allowance race on the Fountain of Youth undercard is the second-best by any current Derby aspirant, but now he has to go beyond seven furlongs for the first time and sustain his quality around two turns. He has the quality to be a very serious racehorse; now we'll see if he has the stamina and tractability to be one at a route.

Tapit makes his season debut in a very difficult spot as his connections scramble to make up for 19 lost days of training. Trainer Michael Dickinson says he'd be happy to run third. Maybe Tapit gets up for second if Value Plus tires badly, because it's hard to make a case for anyone else.

It's fascinating to see which races Value Plus, Tapit, and Eurosilver ended up in on this Florida Derby card, because the choices for all three seem counterintuitive. Value Plus would have been odds-on in the Swale, and would have found an easier opponent than Read the Footnotes in any other two-turn stakes on the calendar. It's an interesting sign of confidence and daring that his handlers chose to test his range in the toughest possible spot.

Eurosilver, on the other hand, would seem to have been a more logical entrant in the Florida Derby than in the Swale, being a proven distance runner with a seven-furlong comeback race already under his girth. Instead, he'll be going to Louisville off two sprints and a single route this season. As for Tapit, the Swale might have been a more conventional spot for a return, but since he will only have two preps before the Derby, Dickinson wanted them both to be routes.

How times have changed. Twenty years ago, Swale himself got a late start on his prep campaign, coming out on March 7 in the opening-day Hutcheson at Gulfstream, but still had four preps for the Derby - the Hutcheson, the Fountain of Youth on March 17, the Florida Derby on March 31, and the Lexington on April 17 - after running seven times as a 2-year-old. Today such a schedule would prompt calls to animal-rights groups, but it put Swale in the winner's circle on Derby Day.

Halfbridled is supposed to win the Oaks but how she wins it will determine whether you want to take her at around 3-1 in the Oaks Futures or around 15-1 in the Derby Futures. Four months ago in the Breeders' Cup, she was faster in the Juvenile Fillies than any of the mediocre colts in the Juvenile, but that alone will no longer be good enough. Was she just precocious or has she moved forward?

That will be the question Action This Day has to answer Sunday. He was a great bet-against last time out, returning against faster horses than he beat in that sorry Juvenile, but he took a sneaky step forward that day, has been trained harder since, and is eligible to keep moving the right way. If he can jump up Sunday into the 105 Beyer range, he has time to get where he needs to be by Derby Day, but he still has to make those two moves.

* Sometimes we make these races more complicated than they have to be. In last Sunday's Louisiana Derby, all it took was a quick look at everyone's last-race Beyer. Three colts - Wimbledon, Borrego, and Pollard's Vision - had each run a 98 last time out, and no one else in the field, including favored Gradepoint, had ever run better than a 96. The Wimbledon-Borrego-Pollard's Vision trifecta paid $680.80. What an easy game.