10/02/2003 12:00AM

Champagne for Zito and Birdstone


ELMONT, N.Y. - Nick Zito has always been a Champagne fan.

Long before he saddled three consecutive winners of the prestigious feature for 2-year-olds - The Groom Is Red in 1998, Greenwood Lake in 1999, and A. P. Valentine in 2000 - Zito had a high regard for the Champagne as a definitive test of class in the division.

So when Birdstone, a colt owned by Marylou Whitney and a half-brother to the stable's Kentucky Oaks winner, Bird Town, won his maiden in spectacular fashion early in the Saratoga meeting, it was understandable that the trainer's thoughts focused on the Champagne.

Zito believes in spacing races for 2-year-olds so that they can digest experiences before being pushed into new ones. He prefers to establish what he terms a rhythm that can help young horses progress from start to start.

"Birdstone needed some racing after breaking his maiden," the trainer said the other day. "I didn't want to run him back too soon, and time passed quickly. The Hopeful was coming up on the final weekend, and it was the last chance we would have for him to run again at the meeting. He was going to have to concede racing experience to some of his opponents, but he won his maiden by more than 12 lengths, and we thought he might be able to overcome his inexperience."

When he ran for the first time, Birdstone finished strongly. He is by Grindstone, who came from far back to upset the 1996 Kentucky Derby, Stretch-running appears to be a family trait, and one that could be helpful to Birdstone when he bids for the $500,000 Champagne at Belmont Park on Saturday. The Champagne is part of an outstanding program that also includes the $750,000 Beldame for fillies and mares, the $500,000 Frizette for 2-year-old fillies, and the $350,000 Kelso Breeders' Cup Handicap.

Birdstone closed briskly in the Hopeful, but hit the side of the gate at the start, which didn't help his chances. He also raced wide throughout, finishing fourth.

"We think he'll get some benefit from his Hopeful race," Zito said. "He has trained very well coming up to the Champagne and has shown some physical development. We've also got a top rider in Jerry Bailey."

Chapel Royal, winner of the Flash and Sanford Stakes, is expected to go off the favorite in the Champagne. He was second in the Hopeful to Silver Wagon, a promising colt whose connections are focusing on next spring's classics. Dashboard Drummer, undefeated winner of Monmouth Park's Sapling Stakes, will also command some support, but if Birdstone has caught up with his schedule, he should be the one to beat.