03/16/2004 1:00AM

Bailey expects big race from size-challenged Birdstone

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The last time Jerry Bailey rode at Turfway Park, he had just received his first Eclipse Award and was the newest jockey member of the Hall of Fame.

A whole lot has changed since then. Bailey has won six more Eclipse Awards and broken all kinds of riding records while becoming the go-to guy for many of the top trainers in North America. So it comes as little surprise that when Bailey returns Saturday to Florence, Ky., for the first time since he rode Dr. Caton to a forgettable seventh-place finish in the 1996 Jim Beam Stakes, Turfway fans figure to make him a heavy favorite to upgrade his 1-for-7 record in the track's showcase event.

Bailey will ride Birdstone in the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes, the Grade 2 race formerly known as the Jim Beam. Speaking on a national teleconference Tuesday, Bailey said he was eager to see how Birdstone has progressed since last month at Gulfstream Park, where Bailey guided the colt to an easy three-length win in a seven-furlong allowance race.

"I know he didn't get a huge number that day, but that wasn't our goal for the day," said Bailey. "Actually, I didn't have to ask him much at all."

Birdstone, owned by Marylou Whitney and trained by Nick Zito, earned a 93 Beyer Speed Figure in that Feb. 14 win, his only start since a victory in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes last October. Quite a bit of discussion has been generated about how Birdstone is a May foal and is relatively small in stature - the colt is known as "Little Man" around the Zito barn - but Bailey said he is not overly concerned with those issues.

"Really the big concern is not how big or small a horse is, but how they develop from 2 to 3," he said. "That's why some horses aren't nearly as brilliant at 3, because they've already peaked at 2."

Bailey rode Birdstone's sire, Grindstone, to win the 1996 Kentucky Derby, and the jockey noted that Grindstone was not a particularly big horse, either. He added that 11 weeks will have passed from Birdstone's seasonal debut to the 130th Derby on May 1, and "that's an eternity for a 3-year-old. There's still a lot of time for them to mature and improve."

Bailey said he expects Birdstone to run well Saturday and give the jockey his second Lane's End victory. His first came 13 years ago, when the race was called the Jim Beam, aboard Hansel, the colt he eventually rode to win the Preakness and Belmont.

Bailey said that Birdstone will "need to step it up a bit" on Saturday.

"Obviously this will be a little tougher race," he said. "He needs to run a little harder while saving a little something for down the road."

Birdstone will be part of a field of 10 to 12 3-year-olds in the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End, for which entries will be drawn Thursday. The probable second choice is Silver Minister, the Louisville-based colt who swept all three of the Turfway preps for the Lane's End. Rafael Bejarano will ride Silver Minister for trainer Greg Foley.

The other probable starters include Hippocrates and That's an Outrage, both of whom were scheduled to arrive Wednesday from California; Stolen Time and Tales of Glory, both expected Thursday from Florida; New Element, a recent arrival from New Orleans; and Little Matth Man, runner-up to Silver Minister in the John Battaglia Memorial last month.

Other prospects are Hasslefree, Sinister G, Tap Dancing Mauk, Tricky Taboo, and Rockhewn. Several of those horses may run instead in the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes, one of four undercard stakes to be run Saturday. Those other races are the $150,000 Bourbonette Breeders' Cup, $50,000 Queen, and $50,000 Hansel.

Hippocrates is based in Southern California with trainer Kathy Walsh, who won the 1998 Arkansas Derby with longshot Hanuman Highway.

Turfway officials were informed Tuesday by trainer Jennifer Pedersen that neither of her top 3-year-olds, Redskin Warrior and Song of the Sword, will run in the Lane's End. Redskin Warrior will run instead in the Gotham Stakes the same day at Aqueduct, and Song of the Sword will run April 3 in the Illinois Derby.

The Gotham and Lane's End will be televised live on ESPN2 on a one-hour show beginning at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.

Turfway Park is located near Cincinnati, where a light snow fell on Tuesday. But forecasters are calling for temperatures to reach the high 50's by the weekend.