03/17/2004 1:00AM

Eddington eyes stakes debut

Eddington (above) will run in the Gotham at Aqueduct Saturday. Other Kentucky Derby candidates in action Saturday include Smarty Jones, who goes in the Rebel at Oaklawn, and Birdstone, who will run in the Lane's End at Turfway.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Although Eddington has yet to run in a stakes race, he has quickly become one of the most-watched prospects for this year's Kentucky Derby. He closed as the fifth choice among individual runners in last week's Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, in part because of his two powerful victories at Gulfstream Park last month, in part because a number of top-ranked 3-year-olds this year disappointed last weekend.

Much of Eddington's appeal has been based on the theory that he will improve with both racing and distance. He will take his first step into stakes company on Saturday, when he runs in the $200,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

Mark Hennig, the trainer of Eddington, had several options on where to go with Eddington. He could have run last weekend in the Florida Derby, or even the Tampa Bay Derby. This weekend, his choices included the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway, and the $200,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Hennig said he thought the timing of this week's races made more sense, since Eddington will have had three weeks since his last race, a victory on Feb. 28. Running in the Gotham, however, means a return to a one-turn race. Both the Lane's End and Rebel are around two turns, but Hennig is choosing to back Eddington up to a one-turn mile after sending him two turns in his last three starts.

"Besides the timing of the races, which was essential, we thought about how much shipping he would have to do, and thought it might be advantageous for him to have horses to run at," Hennig said Wednesday from New York. "He's had an easy time up front in his last couple of races, but I don't see that happening the first Saturday in May. We know we're playing catch-up, but we're dealing with some confidence in what we do know - we're confident the distance of the Derby won't be a problem.

"In this race, there's some speed that will run away from him early. He won't be up with the leaders. He'll learn something from it. It's not going to be the end of the world if he's running at the end of the race and finishes second."

Hennig said the Gotham also affords Eddington a minimal amount of shipping. Assuming Eddington runs well this weekend, he will simply remain in New York for the April 10 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

Hennig, in fact, will do more shipping than Eddington. He has a whirlwind week in front of him. He will marry Rose Badgett on Friday night, run Eddington on Saturday, then leave for a honeymoon in Hawaii on Sunday.

"The wedding didn't go into the equation of where he would run," Hennig said, laughing. "Honestly. It's just a fringe benefit. These plans were made well in advance of the horse."

Eddington, a son of Unbridled, was purchased for $450,000 as a yearling by the Willmott Stables Inc. of Peter and Michelle Willmott. Peter Willmott is the former chief executive of FedEx. Willmott is advised by Kentucky-based brothers Allan and Kevin Lavin, who are close friends of Hennig.

Eddington did not race until Nov. 28. "He was always such a big, strong horse, who we figured was going to need two turns, that we waited," Hennig said.

He has made steady progress since beginning his career with a late-running second-place finish in a one-turn mile race at Aqueduct.

"He raced greenly and closed with a rush," said Richard Migliore, who rode Eddington that day.

Eddington then went to Florida for the winter. He finished second to Shaniko in a maiden race at Gulfstream on Jan. 8, then cruised to runaway victories against maidens and first-level allowance runners at Gulfstream. He added blinkers for his last two starts, and his Beyer Speed Figures improved significantly. They have increased every race, with Eddington earning a career-best 101 in his last start.

Jerry Bailey rode Eddington in his last three races, but he had a commitment to ride Champagne Stakes winner Birdstone on Saturday in the Lane's End. Edgar Prado has picked up the mount on Eddington, but Bailey has great respect for Eddington.

"He's very talented," Bailey said. "He's a fun horse to run. He puts you in the race. He's extremely talented. I'm sorry I won't be able to ride him."

In other Derby developments:

* Eddington's rivals in the Gotham are expected to include Deputy Storm, Pomeroy, Redskin Warrior, and Saratoga County.

* Birdstone figures to be a heavy favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End. His rivals are expected to include Silver Minister, Tales of Glory, and That's an Outrage. Also at Turfway Saturday is the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes.

* The undefeated Smarty Jones, who last won the Southwest Stakes, goes for his fifth victory in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel. He is scheduled to face Cryptograph, Mr. Jester, and the unbeaten Purge.

* Action This Day is "doubtful," trainer Richard Mandella said, for the April 3 Santa Anita Derby because he needs more time to recover from a laceration suffered in Sunday's San Felipe Stakes. The April 10 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland is the most likely alternative, Mandella said.