04/14/2005 12:00AM

Derby preps nearing the wire

Sun King starts from post 6 under Edgar Prado in the 81st running of the Grade 1, $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - The has been widely proclaimed as the best race this year on the trail to the 131st Kentucky Derby.

And from a handicapping standpoint, it is also the most fascinating. The field appears to be very closely matched in ability and style, and the 1 1/8-mile race might very well hinge on what split-second decisions are made soon after the horses and jockeys break from the Keeneland starting gate Saturday at about 5:45 p.m. Eastern.

"It sure looks like a jockey's race, doesn't it?" asked Nick Zito, who will saddle the likely favorite, Sun King, for the 81st running of the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass. "I don't know exactly how the whole thing is going to pan out. I don't know if anybody does."

The most likely scenario will have High Limit, also expected to be a top contender, contesting the lead from just outside of Spanish Chestnut and Consolidator. And therein lies one of the major keys to the outcome - who will concede what to whom, if in fact any concessions are made at all.

"My horse is very fast," said Rafael Bejarano, who will ride Consolidator for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. "But I don't have to be on the lead. I will see what happens after we break. If I am on the lead, maybe a length back, that will be good. It all depends on what my horse wants to do."

Like Sun King and High Limit, Consolidator is entered off a sensational victory, and that gives the Blue Grass much of its considerable intrigue. Sun King was a very easy winner of the Tampa Bay Derby, High Limit remained unbeaten in three starts with a wire-to-wire score in the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, and Consolidator ran off to a 6 1/2-length triumph in the San Felipe at Santa Anita.

The San Felipe erased the disappointment that Lukas and the colt's owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis, had experienced when Consolidator finished fourth and last in his 3-year-old debut, the Feb. 13 San Vicente. Lukas said that after the San Vicente he began demanding more from Consolidator in his daily training, and the results showed in the San Felipe.

Consolidator may have an advantage in terms of course preference, since he won the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last fall. Only one other Blue Grass starter, longshot Spanish Chestnut, has raced over the track, having won a maiden race in his career debut last fall.

As for Sun King, Zito is cautiously optimistic that the colt will run extremely well, although victory is not essential to proceed to the May 7 Derby at Churchill Downs. Sun King will start from post 6 under Edgar Prado, who won two of the last three runnings of the Blue Grass with Harlan's Holiday in 2002 and Peace Rules in 2003.

"The key word is 'comfortable,' " said Zito. "I'm hoping Edgar can get him in a nice spot, get him to relax, get him real comfortable going around there. The colt is doing so well, I'm really looking forward to seeing how he does Saturday."

The other starters in the Blue Grass are Mr Sword, a winner of three races this year, albeit none of them stakes; Closing Argument, winner of the Holy Bull in February in his only start at 3; and Bandini, most recently second behind the eventual Florida Derby winner, High Fly, in the March 5 Fountain of Youth.

The Blue Grass, which goes as the ninth of 10 Saturday races, will be televised live during a two-hour ESPN broadcast that begins at 4:30 p.m. The Blue Grass is the third leg of the new Premier Pick 4 wager, which carries a $1 minimum. The other races are the Instant Racing Breeders' Cup (leg 1) from Oaklawn Park; the Commonwealth BC (leg 2) from Keeneland; and the Arkansas Derby (leg 4) at Oaklawn.

The Saturday forecast for Lexington calls for sunny skies and a high temperature in the high 60's.

The field

Blue Grass
Purse: $750,000, 1 1/8 miles, Grade 1

1Mr SwordJ. Bailey15-1
2Closing ArgumentC. Velasquez15-1
3Spanish ChestnutG. Stevens20-1
4ConsolidatorR. Bejarano3-1
5High LimitR. Dominguez5-2
6Sun KingE. Prado8-5
7BandiniJ. Velazquez5-1

* All starters carry 123 pounds
* Odds by Kristin Sadler
* Television: Saturday, 4:30-6:30 p.m. (Eastern), ESPN