04/20/2004 11:00PM

Early birds keep from getting soaked

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The Cliff's Edge gallops last Saturday under regular exercise rider Maxine Correa. He jogged Wednesday and is set to work out on Monday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If Wednesday morning is any indication, tracking this year's Derby contenders up to the main event will not only require a stopwatch and binoculars but also an umbrella and a reliable alarm clock.

Rain was falling heavily over Churchill Downs by the end of training hours Wednesday and remains in the forecast for the next several days. As a result, most of the Derby hopefuls stabled on the grounds had either completed or were in the midst of their morning gallops by sunrise. None of the 14 potential Kentucky Derby starters stabled on the grounds worked Wednesday.

Rain or shine, however, getting up and out early is routine for many of the Derby runners, including Imperialism, who is always among the first group of horses out on the racetrack when it opens for business at 5:15 a.m. daily. Trainer Kristin Mulhall plans to stick with the same schedule when she works the Santa Anita Derby runner-up, weather permitting, under the cover of darkness on Thursday.

Trainer Todd Pletcher's pair of Limehouse and Pollard's Vision are also early birds. When not breezing, both 3-year-olds regularly go out in the first two sets each morning and have usually completed their morning's work by 6 a.m.

Potential Derby favorite The Cliff's Edge was among the last of the Derby starters to train Wednesday. The hero of the Blue Grass Stakes came onto the track at 7:15 a.m., about a half-hour behind stablemate Birdstone, and loped along easily under regular exercise rider Maxine Correa. The big, good-looking colt made a striking appearance, jogging along with his head bowed while looking relaxed and happy with himself.

Pro Prado galloped just moments before The Cliff's Edge, and his action appeared a lot less fluid, although first impressions can be misleading. It will be interesting to see how he strides out during his next workout, which trainer Bob Holthus had penciled in for Thursday morning, assuming Mother Nature cooperates.

Trainer Richard Mandella was also leaning toward working reigning Juvenile champion Action This Day on Thursday, although he will not hesitate to postpone the move until the following morning if the track is wet and not entirely to his satisfaction. Bob Baffert has similar plans mapped out for Preachinatthebar.

As is always the case, the weekend before Derby Day will be a busy one. Among those slated to have their final major Derby preps Saturday are Smarty Jones, Birdstone, and Friends Lake, who arrived from Florida on Wednesday and will get his first feel for the local strip on Thursday morning.

Sunday's work tab is expected to include both Limehouse and Pollard's Vision, along with Borrego and Wimbledon. The Cliff's Edge is scheduled to top Monday's lineup along with Lion Heart, Read the Footnotes, Quintons Gold Rush, and Rock Hard Ten. Master David, who worked Tuesday, will have his final blowout next Tuesday, with Minister Eric currently the last of the scheduled Derby workers next Wednesday.