03/22/2004 1:00AM

Derby theme: let's regroup

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Smarty Jones, rider Stewart Elliott, and owner Patricia Chapman take a victory walk shortly after Saturday's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Nick Zito is a native New Yorker, but considers Kentucky his second home. He got a rude homecoming last weekend, and the disappointment was still etched in his voice Monday morning, two days after Birdstone finished fifth as the 3-5 favorite in the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park.

Zito was still upset that Turfway Park management decided to seal the track just before the Lane's End because of an impending thunderstorm, which hit the track just after the Lane's End. Zito thought that the condition of the track failed to let him evaluate with certainty Birdstone's performance.

"The track was wonderful for the race before," Zito said Monday morning from Keeneland. "If we had had that track, and Birdstone ran that way, you'd know something. It wasn't just us. Look at Silver Minister. He had won at that track when it was muddy, and when it was fast. He was 4 for 4 there. Then he gets a sealed track, and he finishes last.

"Riva Ridge would have been a Triple Crown winner if not for a wet track," Zito said, referring to Riva Ridge's loss in the 1972 Preakness Stakes. "Now, we just have to re-group."

That has been a familiar refrain as the May 1 Kentucky Derby draws closer. Birdstone, last year's Champagne Stakes winner, became the latest highly regarded 3-year-old to take a step backward this season, joining Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Read the Footnotes, and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Action This Day.

This past Saturday brought another mixed bag of results. Birdstone finished nearly 11 lengths behind upset winner Sinister G, who got a 94 Beyer Speed Figure for the Lane's End. Saratoga County got a 96 for his victory in the Gotham Stakes, in which favored Eddington was third. Smarty Jones got the weekend's best number, a career-best 106 for his victory in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

The winners and the vanquished are headed in several different directions. Sinister G, who is based in New York, arrived back at Belmont Park on Monday morning. He is scheduled to race next in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 10, according to trainer John Toscano Jr.

Sinister G had a "for sale" sign around his neck as soon as he exited the winner's circle, but there have been no takers as of yet. Ron McAnally, who trained Sinister G's sire, Matty G, inquired about the colt, but said the asking price of $2 million was too steep.

Sinister G was not nominated to the Triple Crown for $600 at the first deadline in January, but Toscano said he will nominate him by Saturday's deadline, at which point it costs $6,000.

Birdstone has settled in at Keeneland. Zito said he will keep the colt in Kentucky, and said the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 10 is a possible next start. That is also the next scheduled start for Zito-trained Eurosilver. Asked if both could run in the Blue Grass, Zito said, "I have to consider what the best option is."

"I would consider it, of course. I don't want to, but you have to do the best thing for your horse," Zito said.

The Blue Grass is also expected to feature Action This Day, Limehouse, Preachinatthebar, and Gradepoint, whom trainer Neil Howard committed to the race on Monday after he worked five furlongs in 1:02.60 at Fair Grounds.

Zito said another of his colts, The Cliff's Edge, would go to New York for the Wood.

The Gotham is Aqueduct's major prep for the Wood, but Saratoga County will not come back in that race. Instead, according to trainer George Weaver, Saratoga County will run in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 17. Weaver is circumspect regarding the Kentucky Derby, being as Saratoga County has yet to race around two turns and has a sprinter's pedigree. Saratoga County was scheduled to head to Keeneland on Tuesday.

Pomeroy, the Gotham runner-up, also could make his next start in the Lexington. That race is also expected to draw Fire Slam.

Eddington, who finished third in the Gotham, will come back in the Wood. That field is also expected to include Master David, Tapit, and Value Plus.

Smarty Jones ran his record to 5 for 5 with his victory in the Rebel. Should he sweep the April 10 Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby, Smarty Jones will win a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park. John Servis, the trainer of Smarty Jones, said the colt has not reached his peak.

"I wonder when he's going to get to that point," Servis said. "He's not there yet. So far, it's going textbook."

Purge and Pro Prado, who finished second and third in the Rebel, are also expected to come back in the Arkansas Derby. That race also is expected to lure Louisiana Derby runner-up Borrego.

In other Derby developments:

* Alex Solis will ride Master David in the Wood.

* Read the Footnotes, fourth as the favorite in the Florida Derby, likely will train straight up to - The unbeaten Rock Hard Ten will run in the Santa Anita Derby, according to trainer Jason Orman.

- additional reporting by David Grening and Mary Rampellini