03/24/2005 1:00AM

'Accolade' takes the low road

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FLORENCE, Ky. - There is little doubt that Proud Accolade would have been the favorite if Todd Pletcher had run him in the Lane's End Stakes on Saturday.

But it is a moot point. Pletcher has opted for a conservative approach with Proud Accolade, the Padua Stables colt who won the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes last fall. Instead of the $500,000 Lane's End, Proud Accolade will start in the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile race in which he will break from post 4 when facing 11 other 3-year-olds.

Because the Rushaway is ungraded, none of the top finishers will be credited with earnings toward Kentucky Derby eligibility. But Proud Accolade won't need another graded dollar to make the Derby field, so Pletcher had the luxury of bypassing the more demanding Lane's End and using the Rushaway as his stepping-stone to a potential final Derby prep.

When last seen, was extremely sharp in winning the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park in early February. He would have run next in the March 12 Louisiana Derby but spiked a fever about a week before the race, forcing Pletcher to alter plans. Given his apparent major edge in class, Proud Accolade is sure to take very heavy action Saturday, when Jerry Bailey climbs aboard.

Behind him, the Rushaway pecking order seems far murkier. Four horses, all from stables with runners in the Lane's End, rank among the more interesting challengers.

, trained by Nick Zito, is one of those, having shrugged off a horrific February debut to win a March 5 maiden race at Gulfstream.

, trained by Ken McPeek, figures fresh and eager, having last raced Dec. 8, when he won a Turfway allowance. He has been training in recent weeks at Gulfstream.

Catch Me, trained by Pat Byrne, defeated older horses in a Feb. 24 allowance route at Turfway.

Daddy Joe, trained by Jennifer Pedersen, will be trying to rebound off dull efforts in the Whirlaway at Aqueduct and Horatius at Laurel Park. Before those disappointing tries, Daddy Joe, a $900,000 yearling purchase, won back-to-back races.

Of the rest, Stormy Afternoon could make an impact if he can improve off a recent sprint tightener.

The Rushaway, which is part of the live ESPN telecast Saturday, is carded as the eighth of 12 races. Post time for the race is 4:44 p.m. Eastern.