The RACE is the first Saturday in May. This being the first Saturday in April, trainers of the leading Kentucky Derby candidates realize that time is growing short in which to prepare their-3-year-old thoroughbreds to run long, over the1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs May [WORD ILLEGIBLE]

So this weekend three nine furlongraces will be presented from coast to coast as important stepping stones to the 10 furlongs that begin the Triple Crown series. All of the big-name colts except Sensitive Prince will be in action.

Alydar looms[WORD ILLEGIBLE] as a 2-5 favorite over Believe It and five other rivals today in the $150,000 Florida Derby here at Gulfstream Park. Esop's Foibles and Forever Casting head a fiedl of 15 entered in the $100,000 Arkansas Derby today at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs while, on Sunday, Affirmed will be odds-on against Balzac, Noble Bronze and nine others in the $150,000 Santa Anita Derby in California.

Las Vegas lists all these runners as 20-1 or shorter in the Kentucky Derby future book. Affirmed, last season's champion 2-year-old, tops the list at 2-1, followed by archrival Alydor, 7-2; Sensitive Prince, 6-1; Believe It, 10 to 1, and Forever Casting, 12 to 1.

Eddie McKinsey, Gulfstream's racing secretary, rates Alydar one pound superior to Affirmed in his Hypothetical Handicap. "After that, it would be down four pounds to Believe It, then down two pounds more to Sensitive Prince," he said.

McKinsey may be guilty of shilling slightly for the home track but Alydar's Flamingo victory was impressive, by 4 1/2 lenghts, and his Florida Derby opposition has a decided Flamingo flavor.

Noon Time Spender, Dr. Valteri and Believe It finished 2-3-4 at Hialeah. They are back for another try, carrying 122 pounds, while nonstakes winners Judge Jay, Pipe Major and Ten Yard Penalty complete the lineup under 118 pounds each.

"Alydar is ship-shape," trainer John Veitch said. "He has worked well in recent weeks, over Gulfstream and Hialeah. Monday, he went the first half of his mile in .51, the second half in .47.

"Believe It is the speed of the race. What Alydar does early will depend on what Believe It does. If Woody (Stephens, the trainer) has Eddie Maple send his colt, Jorge (Velasquez) will have to lay a little closer to the pace than he usually does. That's if they're not running as fast early as race horses should."

Believe It drew the No. 1 post position. The Virginia-bred colt would appear to have little option but to try to break open the race quickly.

Stephens and Maple had no excuse for their colt's disappointing Flamingo effort, when Believe It was 11 to 10 and Alydar 9 to 10, except that Believe It was extremely washy during the post parade. Believe It defeated Alydar in Aqueduct's Remsen Stakes late last fall but, since the Flamingo, also dropped a head decision to Sensitive Prince in the Fountain of Youth Stakes here.

Beleve It's natural speed, the small Florida Derby field and the possibilty of an track could combine to pose a special problem for Alydar today, but Veitch is confident.

"We'll stay with Alydar's running style," he said. "All I want is for Velasquez to get good position, free of horses, down the backside, then make his run from the three-eights pole to the wire. That is what Alydar likes to do, and that is the style of running that will be important the first Saturday of May."