01/11/2002 12:00AM

Will real Roman Dancer please stand up?


PHOENIX - For horses who turned 3 a little under two weeks ago, it may be premature to talk about redemption.

Yet for Roman Dancer and Popular, Sunday's Grade 3 San Miguel at Santa Anita is the chance to make things right after disappointing last efforts.

Roman Dancer sparkled when he won the Sunny Slope on Oct. 20, earning a Beyer of 107. He then showed up in the Hollywood Prevue on Nov. 17 and went off as the heavy favorite but barely picked up his feet, finishing sixth of seven runners.

But trainer Christopher Paasch believes Roman Dancer will revert to his good form in Sunday's six-furlong race.

"The real Roman Dancer will show up," Paasch said. "He trained real good at Hollywood Park. But the ground broke out from under him at the start and he never seemed to be able to get a hold of that track that day."

Unlike many trainers of 3-year-olds who cast an eye toward May at this time of year, Paasch harbors no illusions that Roman Dancer will stretch out to the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles. But he does think the colt might have a future sprinting on the turf.

"He's well bred for the grass," Paasch said. "I'll be real excited to see him run on turf. He's the epitome of a sprinter; he's built so powerfully, he can really push and pull."

If all goes well Sunday, Paasch said, the Grade 3 Baldwin Stakes on Feb. 24 on the hillside turf course could be next on Roman Dancer's agenda.

Indeed, Paasch may be onto something about the Hollywood debacle. Roman Dancer hadn't run that poorly before. He had previously been fourth to Came Home in Saratoga's Grade 1 Hopeful and third in the Grade 2 Norfolk at Santa Anita. If he shows up with his best game Saturday, the others are in trouble.

Popular had an excuse before his allowance flop at Santa Anita on opening day. Trainer Bob Baffert said Popular was "doing a Mexican hat dance" in the paddock, that he was unnerved and spent a lot of energy before the gates open. He finished seventh, beaten 15 lengths. In his fine Prevue effort, when running a close second to Fonz's (and beating Roman Dancer), it was clear that the talent is there.

Is Popular a Derby horse? He has the right pedigree (by Saint Ballado), looks the part, is owned by connections (The Thoroughbred Corp.) who think Derby, and is trained by the most dominant man in the Triple Crown the past half-dozen years.

But Popular has yet to win at a route. And Baffert passed the Hollywood Futurity, a logical place to prove Popular can win at a distance.

Baffert recently said that if the Derby were in two weeks he would run his star filly, Habibti - and that his fillies were ahead of his colts. Nothing Baffert has said or done should make us believe Popular is Derby material.

But can Popular win the San Miguel? Of course, he can. He has shown speed and guts, a potent combination. Of course, if Roman Dancer returns to his Sunny Slope form, Popular is going to have to run a race he hasn't run yet if he is to win. But it is not impossible.

Frankel: Key to San Gorgonio?

Sunday's other stakes, the Grade 2 San Gorgonio at 1 1/8 miles on the turf, is an opportunity for some horses to shine in the absence of others. Stars like Starine and Golden Apples won't return for a couple months, and Affluent is concentrating on running on dirt now.

But there remain significant questions about the San Gorgonio's two likely favorites, Tout Charmant and Janet.

Tout Charmant has had a great career. She nearly won the championship in 2000. After winning the Matriarch that year, however, she came down with colic. It was bad enough to require surgery, and she didn't return until almost 10 months later. And while she has shown a little of the old spark, there's no doubt she is not what she used to be.

Then there's Janet, a two-time Grade 1 winner who has been terrific for trainer Darrell Vienna. Vienna admits being surprised by Janet's development.

"Anytime you get a horse that's just broken its maiden and ends up winning a Grade 1 or 2 you're going to be surprised," he said. "When she came here [from Europe] she had just broken her maiden."

But Janet's past few races haven't been as sharp, and Vienna admits she's not coming up to this one in peak form. "She's doing okay," he said. "I wouldn't say that she's great, but she's doing all right. She likes this course, but I think she likes it even more when it's a little firmer."

So who's ready to take advantage? Funny, but in these turf races lately a familiar name keeps cropping up - Bobby Frankel.

In this race, it's his lunch-pail, hard-hat type Dancingonice. She's not going to be confused with Starine, a multiple Grade 1-winning turf mare, but Dancingonice is talented and will give her all. She ran huge on this course and at this distance at Oak Tree in the Grade 2 Las Palmas, giving top 3-year-old turf filly Golden Apples all she could handle and leaving Tout Charmant (fourth) and Janet (third) in her wake.

Dancingonice has been freshened since, and it's conceivable that she will find herself on a lonely, comfortable lead, which could have her dancing all the way to the winner's circle.