03/26/2008 12:00AM

Add Shirley Jones to Fla. Derby card

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Saturday's outstanding Florida Derby program got even better with a little help from Mother Nature.

Heavy rains forced the cancellation of the second half of last Saturday's program, including the $200,000 Shirley Jones Handicap. As a result, racing secretary Bill Couch rescheduled the Grade 2 Shirley Jones for Florida Derby Day, when it will join the Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes and Grade 2 Bonnie Miss Stakes as supporting features on the card.

Couch put the Shirley Jones back up as an extra for Saturday's card, which meant the race was redrawn instead of merely carried over from last week. The resulting change in post positions did not help the favorite and 124-pound highweight Sugar Swirl, according to her trainer, Bryan Lynch. Sugar Swirl was to have started from the outside last Saturday, but now will break from post 2 in a field of six fillies and mares that also includes Shaggy Mane and Baroness Thatcher.

"With all the weight she's carrying I really preferred the outside post she had last weekend because it would have allowed her a nice, clean trip," said Lynch. "You really don't want to take the risk of getting stopped and having to start over again when carrying all that weight."

Still, Lynch is confident Sugar Swirl will complete a sweep of the three graded sprint stakes for fillies and mares at the meet with a win in the seven-furlong Shirley Jones.

"She's ready to go," he said. "The extra time should help us. The more time the better for her. She's in such good form now I can't wait to run her."

Backseat Rhythm heads Bonnie Miss

The Grade 2 Bonnie Miss for 3-year-old fillies drew a field of seven, including Overandabeauty, who was supplemented to the race by trainer Nick Zito.

Backseat Rhythm, a troubled third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, tops the cast, which also includes her stablemate Classy Concern, Louisiana invader Highest Class, Shes All Eltish, Halo Hollie, and Robbie's Gal.

Cool Gator points beyond Derby

Trainers don't usually use the Kentucky Derby as a prep for another stakes further down the road. But that could be the case later this spring should Cool Gator run well in Saturday's Florida Derby.

Cool Gator is a Canadian-bred and thus eligible for the Queen's Plate at Woodbine. But trainer Danny Vella said if Cool Gator earns enough graded money and performs well enough on Saturday to get into the Kentucky Derby, he would consider that option before bringing the colt back home to prepare for Canada's premier race for 3-year-olds.

Cool Gator was among the top juveniles based at Woodbine last season. A son of Macho Uno, he finished second in both the Grade 3 Grey Breeders' Cup and the Coronation Futurity while earning over $143,000 for owner Garland Williamson. He has started once here this winter, finishing second behind Nistle's Crunch in a tough first-level allowance race on March 1.

"He was very immature both physically and mentally as a 2-year-old, but he's matured quite a bit thus far this winter," said Vella. "And the addition of blinkers for his last two starts has helped put him in the race a lot earlier and focus better."

Vella is open-minded about the Kentucky Derby, though the Queen's Plate remains his major goal with Cool Gator.

"If he tells us he's ready to go to Kentucky by his performance in the Florida Derby, we'll listen," said Vella. "Our main objective this winter was to get a couple of races into him down here and have him ready early for the Queen's Plate."

Cool Gator has been under the supervision at Gulfstream this winter of trainer Joe Orseno. Vella and Orseno have been close friends since both worked at Frank Stronach's Adena Springs Farm.

"I trained on the farm and Joe was at the track with the Stronach horses about six or seven years ago," said Vella, "and we try to help each other out whenever we can."

Notables among the missing

Several prominent members of the local racing community will not be at the track on Florida Derby Day. Among them are trainer Todd Pletcher, jockey Edgar Prado, and track president Bill Murphy.

Pletcher and Prado will be in Dubai on Saturday for the Dubai World Cup card, and Murphy is in Ireland, where he spent the past week watching his daughter Lara Rose compete in the 36th World Irish Dancing Championships.

"I'm as big a racing fan as there is, and the Florida Derby is obviously a great event," said Murphy. "But the Florida Derby is run every year. Having the opportunity to watch one of your children compete in a world championship comes only once in a lifetime."