11/29/2003 1:00AM

The Cliff's Edge keeps Zito smokin' hot


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Nick Zito capped a sensational Thanksgiving weekend in Kentucky when heavily favored The Cliff's Edge came through with a three-quarter-length triumph Saturday in the $222,200 .

Zito, who won the Clark Handicap the previous day with Quest, seemed equally relieved and elated with the workmanlike triumph by The Cliff's Edge, who was kept wide and out of potential trouble when passing most of the field and taking the lead into the stretch.

"He was really professional today," said Zito. "It wasn't easy, but we did it."

The Cliff's Edge, owned by Robert La Penta, returned $3.80 after finishing 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.50 over a fast track. Gran Prospect, a 21-1 shot, finished second under Craig Perret, another 1 3/4 lengths before Proper Prado (15-1) in third. Commendation, the 7-1 third choice, was fourth, while Mach Speed, the 8-5 second choice, wound up fifth.

Amid sunny and cold weather, and with Shane Sellers riding, The Cliff's Edge was last of eight 2-year-olds going into the first turn. Saltire led through fractions of 24.23 seconds, 48.44, and 1:13.07, but when the real running began, The Cliff's Edge swooped to the lead, then was kept to his task down the stretch.

"I'm just real appreciative of Nick giving me the opportunity to ride a nice horse such as this," said Sellers, who missed much of the meet with various ailments.

Zito, who came down with a severe case of the flu earlier in the week, called The Cliff's Edge, "A big, strong horse. That's going to help him down the road."

The Cliff's Edge, a Gulch colt who won the Iroquois Stakes by nearly eight lengths in his prior race, now has won 3 of 5 starts and just over $255,000. A Kentucky-bred, he soon will head to south Florida, where Zito also will have two other major contenders for the 130th Kentucky Derby in Birdstone and Eurosilver.

"It's nice to be in this position," said Zito.

Both Gran Prospect and Proper Prado will head to Oaklawn Park, where the Arkansas track's series of races for 3-year-olds has been enhanced by a $5 million bonus linked to a Kentucky Derby win.

Mach Speed was scheduled to be ridden by Pat Day, but the Hall of Fame jockey took off ill for the third straight day. Terry Thompson replaced Day.

The Grade 2 KJC, along with its sister race, the Golden Rod Stakes, was the co-feature of the closing-day program of the 27-day Churchill Downs fall meet.