04/08/2004 11:00PM

Birdstone going directly to Derby

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Rock Hard Ten arrived at Churchill Downs on Friday, hoping for a berth in the Kentucky Derby. But right now he lacks enough graded stakes earnings to be among the 20 horses who will qualify for the Derby.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - If Birdstone runs in the Kentucky Derby, it will be without another prep race. Trainer Nick Zito said Birdstone, who was scratched from Saturday's Toyota Blue Grass Stakes because of a high white blood cell count, would head straight into the May 1 Kentucky Derby.

If Birdstone makes it to the race off that schedule, he would be racing in the Derby for the first time in six weeks. He made his last start in the Lane's End Stakes on March 20 at Turfway Park. Birdstone is one of three horses who will seek to run in the Derby off an extended layoff. Friends Lake and Read the Footnotes, who both last raced in the Florida Derby on March 13, would be coming into the Derby off a seven-week break.

"Come on knock on our door," Zito said, cheekily humming the first line from the old TV show "Three's Company." "Three's company - us, Friends Lake, and Read the Footnotes.

"There's no way he's going to run in the Lexington," Zito added.

Even without Birdstone, the $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes on April 17 will have a larger and deeper field than usual. With graded stakes earnings becoming of paramount importance for this year's Derby, several horses will use the Lexington in an attempt to secure a starting berth in a Derby field that is restricted to a maximum of 20 runners.

The latest to join the Lexington field is Suave, who ran third earlier this month in the Illinois Derby.

"We've settled on the Lexington out of a lack of anything else," said Paul McGee, who trains Suave.

McGee said the Peter Pan Stakes and Belmont Stakes are the more likely long-term goals for Suave, but he would not rule out a start in the Derby if Suave earns his way in.

In addition to Suave, the Lexington field is expected to include Bride's Best Boy (Edgar Prado the rider), Fire Slam (Pat Day), Minister Eric (Alex Solis), Pomeroy (Mike Smith), Quintons Gold Rush (Jerry Bailey), and Saratoga County (Javier Castellano), and possibly Tiger Heart. McGee said he had yet to decide on a rider for Suave.

The Lexington is at 1 1/16 miles. There is also a 1 1/16-mile, first-level allowance race at Keeneland scheduled for Wednesday that could lure a couple of those runners.

Rock Hard Ten, currently on the outside looking in regarding graded stakes earnings, arrived at Churchill Downs on Friday for trainer Jason Orman. Rock Hard Ten, who was placed third in the Santa Anita Derby after being disqualified from second, is not scheduled to race again before the Derby. He is in a tenuous spot. Rock Hard Ten will need several horses currently above him on the earnings list to drop out, and must hope several below him do not leapfrog past him.