08/30/2004 12:00AM

Brilliant training job by Zito


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Even for a New York-based colt, Birdstone has compiled quite an impressive resume. He won the Champagne last year. He won the Belmont Stakes in June. And with his victory Saturday in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in one of the most surreal racing settings I have ever experienced - thanks to Mother Nature and her weather - Birdstone has now won three of the oldest and most prestigious stakes races on the New York Racing Association's calendar.

But let's face it. This Travers was as much about Birdstone's trainer, Nick Zito, and not because Zito also saddled the runner-up, The Cliff's Edge. Zito had won the Kentucky Derby (twice), the Kentucky Oaks, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Futurity, the Dwyer, the Suburban, the Brooklyn, the Acorn, the Flower Bowl, the Wood Memorial, the Pimlico Special, the Donn, the Blue Grass, and the Remsen, just to mention a few races. But going into this year, Zito had two holes in his r?sum? that had to bother a horse-training son of New York. Zito had not won the Belmont, and he had not won the Travers.

The latter really had to eat at him, because Zito should have won the Travers in 2000 with Albert the Great. Albert the Great lost by only a head after drifting into the deeper going on the rail under right-handed whipping in the stretch. But Zito knocked off both the Travers and the Belmont in the same year with Birdstone. And his work with Birdstone through this period alone should be enough to get Zito into the Hall of Fame across the street from his beloved Saratoga Race Course.

Zito had Birdstone ready to run 1 1/2 miles in the Belmont, and to capitalize on Smarty Jones's imprudent journey, despite the colt not having had a competitive outing since February. Sure, Birdstone did start in the Lane's End and Kentucky Derby in between that first start as a 3-year-old in February and the Belmont. But Birdstone never ran a step in either race, so it is unlikely he got much, if anything, out of either race.

But Zito's decision to forgo a prep race for the Travers - a decision he referred to in the post-Travers press conference by noting how he told owner Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, "Let's just go for the big one . . . If [Birdstone] is going to fire, let him fire on the right day at the right time" - really illustrated his remarkable work with his colt. Despite the near three-month gap between the Belmont and Travers, Birdstone was much the best over six opponents who all had sharp recent efforts going for them. This was some piece of training with a colt whose tiny stature makes striking the right balance of racing schedule and training regimen a very tricky task.

It is a good thing that Birdstone has emerged the way he has. The early retirement of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones, which still leaves a sour taste, created a rather large void. Birdstone made a compelling case Saturday that he is prepared to fill it.

Let's keep a lid on the "Birdstone for champion 3-year-old" movement, however. It is to Birdstone's credit that he is the only one who ever defeated Smarty Jones, and unlike Smarty Jones, Birdstone is still in the game punching. But, you can't make believe that Birdstone's 15 1/4-length loss to Smarty Jones in the Kentucky Derby never happened. Smarty Jones's Derby and Preakness victories are still the standard by which this 3-year-old class is measured.

Race revealed Azeri's weak spot

Every horse has a weakness, including many who are in the Hall of Fame. Bold Ruler resented rating tactics, Riva Ridge might have won the Triple Crown were it not for his dislike for off tracks, and Fort Marcy, while a tiger on turf, could outrun few good horses on dirt. This is noted because Azeri's Achilles' heel was apparent in her loss to Storm Flag Flying in Friday's Personal Ensign Handicap at Saratoga.

Azeri has evolved from a filly who could effectively rate, to one who wanted the early lead, to a mare who isn't quite as effective if she doesn't get the lead early. Before Friday, Azeri had made nine starts dating back to May of last year. Five were wins, and in all five, Azeri had the lead no later than the second call. In three of those four losses, Azeri did not make the lead.

On Friday, Azeri was denied the early lead by Roar Emotion, who was rightfully sent to the front by Jerry Bailey because she had to be in front to have any chance of winning the Personal Ensign. Azeri may have moved a little prematurely after Roar Emotion in a third quarter-mile in 23.52 seconds, but she opened up a clear lead through a fourth quarter in a slow 26.16, and despite the final quarter being run in an interminable 27.66, Azeri could not hold off Storm Flag Flying.

By any measure (Azeri was assigned a Beyer Figure of only 97 for the Personal Ensign), this performance was not up to the standard Azeri established 3 1/2 weeks earlier winning the Go for Wand. I believe Azeri not having the early lead is the reason why.