04/05/2002 1:00AM

Famed golden rail lives another day


LEXINGTON, Ky. - If speed and the rail are awfully good, then this must be Keeneland.

In the six dirt races Friday, the first day of the 16-day Keeneland spring meet, every winner either was on or very close to the lead, or rallied up the rail after lagging several lengths back in the early going.

Meanwhile, horses who were unfortunate enough to be caught three or fourwide on the final turn invariably faded toward the rear.

Perhaps most typical of the way the track was playing were the fifth and sixth races, in which Clergy and Storm Craft were the respective winners. Both made steady rallies along the rail on the turn, then drew off to win easily.

"At Keeneland, I always try to stay on the rail if I can help it," said Robby Albarado, who rode Clergy.

"It's instilled in me. Maybe [the rail is good] because not as many horses work over it as at Churchill, I don't know. I just know I've won so many races here just like that." Deserved or not, the Keeneland main track long has had a reputation for favoring speed and/or inside horses.

Track president Nick Nicholson has maintained that the overriding priority concerning the track surface is safety - although he is acutely aware that many horsemen and horseplayers dislike a biased surface and that it is in the track's best interest to have it play as fairly as possible.

Six horses obviously do not a meet make - but the opening-day results strongly suggest that the words "golden rail" and "speed bias" will be uttered more than a few times in the coming days and weeks here.

o After Nick Zito saddled Bag of Mischief to win the opening race of the meet, the trainer said he was particularly thrilled because the colt is owned by Marylou Whitney, the legendary socialite whose family's roots are closely intertwined with Keeneland's 65-year history. "That was the best," said Zito. "To win for the Queen, her majesty herself, that was kind of cool. All that tradition, you know?" Bag of Mischief, ridden by Rene Douglas, paid $5.40 as favorite after defeating 11 other maidens.

Deville rolls into town

Just as he did two years ago, trainer Carl Deville came in quietly from Louisiana to win the first race of the meet for 2-year-olds. Raise an Emblem shot from the gate to capture the second race Friday by 3 3/4 lengths under Eddie Martin Jr., returning $37.40 to win.

Deville, 36, also won the first 2-year-old race here at the 2000 spring meet with The Goo. "We get the babies ready at our training center, then take them to Evangeline Downs," said Deville, who makes a circuit of Monmouth Park in the summer, Keeneland in the spring and fall, and Fair Grounds in the winter.

Clergy to Derby Trial

Clergy most likely is headed to the April 27 Derby Trial after his impressive performance in the fifth, a $57,000 allowance for 3-year-olds. A Pulpit gelding trained by Frank Brothers, Clergy won by 7 3/4 lengths when finishing seven furlongs in 1:22.67.

Clergy is owned by Adele Dilschneider, who is closely associated with Dell Hancock and Claiborne Farm. Asked whether she was thinking about the May 18 Preakness for Clergy if he turns in another big performance in the Derby Trial, Dilschneider responded: "I'm always thinking."

Stephentown turned out

Stephentown, the Wild Again colt who became an instant classics contender after romping to an allowance victory in early January at Gulfstream Park, has been turned out for an unspecified period, said trainer Tony Reinstedler.

"He came in March 22 and went to Longfield Farm for a break," said Reinstedler. "I don't know when he'll come back, other than when he's ready." Stephentown, owned by Willmott Stables, was a disappointing sixth in the Fountain of Youth but, according to Reinstedler, was training well for the March 16 Florida Derby when he suffered a slightly jammed shoulder five days before the race.

"There's nothing wrong with him other than he's going through a growing spurt," said Reinstedler.

* After being off the air last fall following a 13-year run, veteran broadcaster Pete Kules is back every morning this spring with "On the Backstretch Live." The 15-minute program on WLXG-AM (1300) begins at 9:50 a.m. Eastern. Kules also hosts a one-hour Saturday program on the same station at 9 a.m. Michael Hernon and John Gasper are co-hosts.

* Perfect Drift had his first workout since winning the March 23 Lane's End Spiral Stakes when breezing a half-mile Friday in 48.80 seconds at the Trackside training facility in Louisville. Trainer Murray Johnson has said Perfect Drift most likely will not have another race until the May 4 Kentucky Derby.