02/14/2004 12:00AM

Barely a feather out of place


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It was only the first start of the year, and the first race of the day, but there was a sense of anticipation at Gulfstream Park over Saturday's comeback race for Birdstone.

The highly regarded 3-year-old colt, making his first start since capturing the Champagne Stakes four months earlier, attracted plenty of attention, including a "60 Minutes II" camera crew working on a feature story on jockey Jerry Bailey. But the smallish colt ignored the distractions and made short work of five overmatched rivals, winning the second-level allowance race by a comfortable three lengths.

"That was great. Just what I was looking for," Nick Zito, the trainer of Birdstone, said following the victory.

Birdstone ($2.40) was kept three paths wide the entire race by Bailey, who rode Birdstone like he was on much the best horse. After cruising to the leaders at the top of the stretch, Bailey took a peek to his outside, to see if anyone was coming, because he already had those to his inside measured.

"It figured to be a nice, slow pace in there, but he relaxed very well for me, which was what I wanted him to do," Bailey said. "He finished very well without me having to really get down on him."

Birdstone covered one mile and 70 yards on the fast main track in 1:42.40. He has now won three times in four starts for Marylou Whitney, who bred and owns the son of Grindstone. Zito said he had not picked out a next race for Birdstone, but a logical spot would be the $1 million Florida Derby on March 13.

Birdstone was the co-second choice Friday in the inaugural edition of Daily Racing Form's Derby Watch. His Zito-trained stablemate, Eurosilver, is the favorite. Eurosilver is scheduled to make his next start on March 13 in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes.

Value Plus romps to win

Another well-regarded 2-year-old of last year, Value Plus, was an impressive winner of his 2004 debut when he captured a first-level allowance race by 5 3/4 lengths in a swift 1:21.42 for seven furlongs.

Value Plus had not raced since Nov. 2, when he injured a hoof after stumbling badly at the start of Aqueduct's Nashua Stakes, losing jockey John Velazquez in the process. It was a long way down for Velazquez, because Value Plus is a tall, imposing colt.

"He might be 17 hands," said his trainer, Todd Pletcher. "There aren't too many taller."

He also is quite graceful once he gets moving. Value Plus roared to the lead in the opening quarter-mile, and always appeared to be going better than pace rival Misty Appeal, who dueled with Value Plus through a half-mile in 44.61 seconds. Value Plus then drew away in the stretch.

Value Plus, a son of Unbridled's Song who was purchased by owners Aaron and Marie Jones for $1.1 million as a yearling, was second in last year's Belmont Futurity to Cuvee, and was fourth behind Eurosilver in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. He has now won twice in five starts.

"He's a big, leggy colt with loads of speed," Pletcher said. "We've done a lot of gate work with him. He's not a bad gate horse. There's just not a lot of room in the gate for him."

Swingforthefences hits one out

Rick Violette, who trains Read the Footnotes, has called Swingforthe-fences "a nice second-stringer," but the Boston Harbor colt made himself a 3-year-old to watch by overcoming a difficult trip to win Saturday's ninth race, a first-level allowance at 1 1/8 miles.

Swingforthefences was bottled up in traffic on the turn, but he unleashed an eye-catching rally once he got loose and rolled to a 5 1/4-length victory over the highly regarded Shaniko, the 6-5 favorite. He was timed in 1:50.67.

"I didn't think I had that much horse, and then I pulled him to the outside to give him a shot and he really accelerated," said Bailey, who rode Swingforthefences. "I was really surprised, but he ran great."

"He didn't have the garden trip, and he accelerated so quickly he half blew the turn," Violette said. "He's a nice horse. There were a couple others here who were highly touted."

Swingforthefences ($7.80) has won twice in four starts. He crossed the wire third, then was promoted to second via disqualification, in a similar entry-level allowance race here on Jan. 24.

Violette said Swingforthefences would likely run in a stakes next, but because he is owned by Seth Klarman's Klaravich Stables, which also owns Read the Footnotes, he wants to keep them apart.

Slew Valley will try to snap streak

Slew Valley, who ran a solid second in the Grade 3 Mac Diarmida Handicap last month, will try to end a 16-race losing streak next Sunday in the Grade 1, $250,000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap.

Slew Valley has not won since taking an optional claiming race at Delaware Park on June 6, 2001. He has competed in 14 stakes since and has earned five graded-stakes placings, including two thirds in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga and a runner-up in the Grade 1 Man o' War last fall at Belmont.

In November, Slew Valley went to Tokyo for the Japan Cup, but heavy rains made the course extremely soft, and Slew Valley finished 13th of 18.

"It rained for five straight days, he ran without Lasix, and it's tough shipping over there," trainer Gary Sciacca said. "He never did care for a soft turf course. He came back here and he ran a very good race first time back in this country. He came out of the race great, and he's training good going into this."

On Thursday, Slew Valley worked a strong half-mile in 48 seconds over Gulfstream's main track. Sciacca said Jorge Chavez would ride.

Among the 20 nominated horses expected to run in the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap, run at 1 3/8 miles on turf, are Balto Star, Hard Buck, Man From Wicklow, Request for Parole, and With Anticipation.

Man From Wicklow, who won this race last year, worked a mile in 1:43 at Palm Meadows on Saturday.

Smokume heading back to New York

Smokume, fourth in the Spectacular Bid Stakes here on Jan. 4, will be heading back to New York for next Saturday's $75,000 Best Turn Stakes at Aqueduct, trainer Allen Jerkens said.

Smokume worked six furlongs in 1:11.40 Saturday morning at Gulfstream and is expected to van to New York on Tuesday. Jerkens said Smokume will remain in New York thereafter.

Smokume won his first three starts, including the Cowdin Stakes at Belmont. He suffered his first loss to Excellent Band in the Huntington Stakes in November at Aqueduct. In the Spectacular Bid, Smokume chased the pace, then drifted out turning for home. He was beaten 2 1/2 lengths by Wynn Dot Comma.

"Wasn't good enough," Jerkens said when asked his thoughts on the Spectacular Bid.

Meanwhile, Jerkens has "high hopes" for Medallist, a 3-year-old son of Touch Gold who won his maiden by 3 1/2 lengths on Feb. 8 after finishing fourth following a slow start in his debut. Medallist, who ran seven furlongs in 1:22.96 and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 89, will likely run in an allowance race next time out.

"If he runs real well we might run him in the Bay Shore," Jerkens said, referring to a Grade 3, $150,000 race over seven furlongs at Aqueduct on April 10.

* Mooji Moo, the upset winner of the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Sprint, worked three furlongs in 37.20 seconds at Palm Meadows on Saturday.

- additional reporting by David Grening