11/27/2003 1:00AM

'Cliff's Edge' latest force in Zito barn


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The rich might get richer Saturday at Churchill Downs - and that has nothing to do with money.

No, it's more about who is heading south for the winter with more Kentucky Derby hopefuls than the law should allow. Nick Zito, whose embarrassment of riches in the 2-year-old division has him looking ahead to the 2004 Derby with great anticipation, will saddle heavily favored The Cliff's Edge in the $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, one of two stakes that bring the 27-day fall meet to an end.

Zito already has three other hopefuls for the Derby: Birdstone, Eurosilver, and El Prado Rob. With The Cliff's Edge, who won the Nov. 2 Iroquois Stakes at Churchill by an eye-popping 7 3/4 lengths, Zito could further his status as the trainer holding the strongest hand on the long Derby trail.

The Cliff's Edge, with Shane Sellers to ride, is one of eight colts entered in the 77th running of the Grade 2 KJC Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile race that regularly produces a top Derby prospect or two. Besides his Iroquois romp, The Cliff's Edge has raced just three other times, resulting in a maiden win at Saratoga, a second-place finish in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile, and a troubled sixth in the Breeders' Futurity.

Zito, who already is a two-time winner of the Derby, believes The Cliff's Edge has tremendous potential, and that his two losses before the Iroquois are easily explained. "He really put it all together in the Iroquois," said Zito. "He's a horse with a lot of talent, knock wood."

The Cliff's Edge, a Gulch colt owned by Robert La Penta, will break from post 7 under Shane Sellers in the KJC. His main competition could come from Commendation, a gray colt who has been a major force among 2-year-old turf horses but is a virtual unknown on dirt.

Among the others, Proper Prado and Gran Prospect merit respect, having finished one-two in a Nov. 9 allowance at 1 1/16 miles. Both are long-striding colts who already have developed effective closing kicks.

The rest of the field is Trust Me, Mach Speed, Jamian, and Saltire. All four are eligible for entry-level allowance conditions.

The KJC is the co-feature of a 12-race card that also includes the Golden Rod Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. The Golden Rod is the 10th race; the KJC is the 11th; and the meet ends with a 1 1/4-mile starter allowance. First post is 11:30 p.m. Eastern.