08/27/2004 11:00PM

Birdstone quiets doubters

Birdstone, with Edgar Prado aboard, wins the Travers, finishing 2 1/2 lengths ahead of stablemate The Cliff's Edge. Eddington ran third.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Trainer Nick Zito's resume is complete.

Completing a quest that began 24 years ago, Zito finally won his first on Saturday when Birdstone - the Belmont Stakes winner owned by Saratoga socialite Marylou Whitney and her husband John Hendrickson - blew past Purge turning for home and rolled to 2 1/2-length victory over stablemate The Cliff's Edge before a crowd of 48,894.

It was 3 1/2 lengths back to Eddington in third. Purge, Sir Shackleton, Suave, and Lion Heart, the 5-2 favorite who gave it up after getting away with a soft early pace, completed the order of finish. Trainer Patrick Biancone said later that Lion Heart, the Haskell Invitational winner, came out of the race lame in his right foreleg.

Zito, 56, had gone winless in 10 previous Travers Stakes attempts with 11 horses. He ran his first Travers horse in 1980 when Little Lenny finished fifth. When Zito won his first Belmont Stakes earlier this year, Zito had also gone winless with 11 prior starters.

Zito brought a loaded gun to the Travers, saddling three of the seven starters in the $1 million race, including The Cliff's Edge and West Virginia Derby winner Sir Shackleton. Many considered Birdstone to be his least likely winner because he was coming off an 84-day layoff.

Zito had been preaching all summer that the lightly made Birdstone's best chance to win the Travers was if he didn't run in a prep race.

"When we brought him back to Saratoga I noticed a change in him," Zito said. "I told John and Marylou let's forget about some prep race, let's go for the big one because I have a feeling he's going to fire. He's got such a big heart. If he's going to fire, let him fire on the right day, at the right time, and that's what he did."

The Travers was run over a fast track but under adverse weather conditions as a hot, sunny day quickly deteriorated into the scene from the Wizard of Oz just before Dorothy's house is uprooted from Kansas. Black clouds, thunder and lightning, and eventually rain prompted the stewards to move post time up three minutes.

As expected, Lion Heart, under Joe Bravo, broke on top with Purge off his flank early. Bravo was able to slow the pace down to 24.48 seconds, 49.15, and 1:12.82 for six furlongs while Purge settled in second, under John Velazquez.

Jockey Edgar Prado had Birdstone in sixth position early, but once they turned up the backside Birdstone was dragging Prado out of the saddle as he moved into fourth place at the half-mile pole. Birdstone moved into third entering the far turn, and swept past Purge at the quarter pole. Purge had taken the lead from Lion Heart, who stopped at that point.

"He broke okay, he dropped back, in three jumps down the backside he was right there," said Prado, who won five races on the card including the Grade 1 King's Bishop. "When Johnny started riding his horse at the three-eighths pole, and he didn't open up, I knew I had a good chance to win the race."

Birdstone cruised to the front turning for home and easily held The Cliff's Edge at bay through the stretch. Birdstone, a son of Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone, covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.45 and returned $11.60 to win.

* The pick four, which had a pool of $1,479,908, returned $1,314. The winning combination of 3-2-3-5 included Smokey Glacken ($7.50), Nothing to Lose ($5.80), Pomeroy ($11.40), and Birdstone ($11.60).