04/09/2004 11:00PM

The Cliff's Edge saves Zito's spring

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Jockey Shane Sellers (left) celebrates his victory in Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes after The Cliff's Edge crosses the wire a half-length in front of Lion Heart, the even-money favorite.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - After taking one lump, then two, the $750,000 went down like a spoonful of simple sugar for trainer Nick Zito. The Cliff's Edge, the third 3-year-old colt Zito considered for the Blue Grass, reversed a spring of misery for the two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer with a late-running victory on Saturday before 24,821 at Keeneland.

Zito at first wanted to run Eurosilver in the Blue Grass, but Eurosilver was taken out of consideration for the Derby two weeks ago because of a virus. Zito entered Birdstone and The Cliff's Edge in the Blue Grass, but was forced to withdraw Birdstone 48 hours before the race because of a high white blood cell count.

Down to his last chance, Zito got the money, and a ticket to the May 1 Derby at Churchill Downs, where The Cliff's Edge is 2 for 2.

"That's a 'Rocky' movie. That's 'Rocky V,' " Zito screamed as he sprinted to the winner's circle with his wife, Kim.

The Cliff's Edge ($13.40), under jockey Shane Sellers, made a late run in the middle of the course to catch Lion Heart, the favorite and early pacesetter, in the final strides. He won by a half-length. Lion Heart finished six lengths clear of third-place Limehouse. Action This Day, last year's champion 2-year-old colt, finished sixth, and Preachinatthebar, the San Felipe Stakes winner, was seventh in the field of eight.

The Blue Grass was one of three Kentucky Derby prep races that were run on Saturday. At Aqueduct in New York, Tapit wore down Master David and Eddington in the final yards to capture the $750,000 Wood Memorial. And at Oaklawn Park, the unbeaten Smarty Jones ran his record to 6 for 6 in the $1 million Arkansas Derby.

Lion Heart, who captured last year's Hollywood Futurity, was sent off the even-money favorite. His early speed made him an elusive target in the Blue Grass, but the Keeneland track was far more fair than it was on Thursday and Friday, when inside speed was paramount.

Lion Heart, racing in the two-path, led Limehouse and a surprisingly eager Preachinatthebar around the first turn and into the backstretch while setting fractions of 23.70 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 46.60 for a half-mile.

The Cliff's Edge got an ideal trip under Sellers. He saved ground for the first seven furlongs of the 1 1/8-mile race, then was tipped to the middle of the course for the stretch drive. He completed 1 1/8 miles on the fast main track in 1:49.42.

The Cliff's Edge, a son of Gulch, has now won four times in eight starts for owner Robert La Penta. He most recently was third in the Florida Derby.

Lion Heart tried to fight off The Cliff's Edge, but yielded late. Still, his performance encouraged his jockey, Mike Smith.

"I like the way he acted today," Smith said. "That's very important on Derby Day."

Action This Day is now winless in three starts since the Breeders' Cup. "I had no excuse," said his jockey, David Flores. "I had a great trip. He just didn't fire."

- additional reporting by Marty McGee