04/08/2004 12:00AM

After long wait, Lion Heart is ready

Lion Heart starts as the favorite in Saturday's $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The first start of his career was delayed until October. His second start this year has been delayed, too. Now, the waiting is over for Lion Heart. He is expected to start as the favorite in Saturday's $750,000 at Keeneland, and if all goes well, he will head to the Kentucky Derby three weeks later, and to the remainder of the Triple Crown.

That's potentially four races in eight weeks, and the way the 3-year-old division has played out this spring, that's looking well beyond the horizon. Just ask trainer Nick Zito. His frustrating spring hit another low on Thursday afternoon, when he told Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman that he would have to scratch Birdstone from the Blue Grass because of a high white blood cell count.

Birdstone was fifth most recently in the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park. If he recovers quickly, he could race next Saturday in the $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes.

"I talked it over with Mrs. Whitney and she said, 'I like my horses more than my trophies,' " Zito said. "We'll continue to train him here and hope that he enjoys himself at Keeneland. We're going to proceed to the Derby and see what happens."

Lion Heart's position puts him exactly where trainer Patrick Biancone desired this close to the Derby. Biancone is harking back to the schedule he had 21 years ago with All Along, who raced every fortnight in the fall en route to her Horse of the Year title in 1983.

"He's ready for the Derby," Biancone said Thursday morning as Lion Heart jogged once around the Keeneland main track. "He's ready for the Triple Crown. He's ready for anything. The start of everything is Saturday. It's just a matter of recovering between races. With All Along, you run again, and run again, quick, quick, quick. It's still a bit of a gamble. All Along was a 4-year-old. He is 3, and developing at the same time. Every day is an adventure."

That should be the catchphrase for this year's Derby preps - every day is an adventure. The spring has been punctuated by upsets, leaving scores of contenders for the Derby. The process could be refined further on Saturday, or become more inscrutable, with three key preps, all at 1 1/8 miles, playing out in about one hour.

First up is the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. A field of 11, headed by Eddington, Master David, Sinister G, Tapit, and Value Plus, was entered on Thursday for the Wood. The Blue Grass is next. Then comes the $1 million Arkansas Derby, with unbeaten Smarty Jones starting from the outside in a field of 11. Those three races are linked as the Big 3 Pick 3 wager.

Of the three, the Blue Grass is the only race with a Grade 1 winner, and it has two of them. Lion Heart won the Hollywood Futurity last fall, and Action This Day won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Birdstone, who won the Champagne Stakes, would have made it three.

"It's the toughest prep race in the country," Biancone said.

It also might have the element of rain. The National Weather Service forecast for Saturday says rain is likely, with the high temperature a chilly 53.

Lion Heart is the controlling speed of the race. He used that speed to win his first three starts, beginning last Oct. 24. In his lone start this year, Lion Heart set wicked early fractions in the one-mile San Rafael Stakes, but was caught in the final strides by Imperialism.

Biancone initially planned on running Lion Heart in last week's Santa Anita Derby, but decided to wait one week for the Blue Grass to give Lion Heart additional time to recover from the San Rafael. "My horse is ready now," he said.

Even with Birdstone out, Zito still will be represented by The Cliff's Edge, who finished well to get third in the Florida Derby in his last start.

Action This Day is winless in two starts since his Breeders' Cup victory. Like Lion Heart, he was kept out of the Santa Anita Derby for the Blue Grass.

"Hopefully we've used up all our bad luck early and saved the good," said his trainer, Richard Mandella, who wants Action This Day to sit back and make one late run.

Limehouse is an intriguing upset possibility. He owns victories in both the Hutcheson Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby this year, ran well in two starts last year at Keeneland, and figures to be the first one to attack Lion Heart.

"He likes to mix it up a little," said his trainer, Todd Pletcher. "He's a street fighter."

Preachinatthebar, like Action This Day and Lion Heart, is making his first start outside of California. He won the San Felipe Stakes in his last start, but the runner-up in that race, St Averil, came back to run poorly in the Santa Anita Derby.

Mustanfar finished sharply to get second, only a neck behind Limehouse, in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Breakaway, who figures to trail early, closed furiously to finish fourth in the Louisiana Derby. He has won two of his last three starts.

"He's really matured the last two or three races," said his trainer, Neil Howard.

That's an Outrage was fourth in the Lane's End last time out. His lone victory in 10 starts was against maidens.

The field

Blue Grass Stakes
Purse: $750,000; 1 1/8 Miles; Grade 1

1BirdstoneE. PradoSCR
2Action This DayD. Flores5-1
3The Cliff's EdgeS. Sellers4-1
4LimehouseJ. Santos5-1
5That's an OutrageM. Guidry20-1
6Lion HeartM. Smith5-2
7MustanfarR. Migliore10-1
8PreachinatthebarJ. Santiago3-1
9BreakawayR. Albarado15-1

* All starters carry 123 pounds
* Odds by Kristin Sadler
* Television: Saturday, 4:30-6 p.m. (Eastern), NBC