05/11/2004 11:00PM

Foot may derail The Cliff's Edge

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Smarty Jones, the undefeated Kentucky Derby winner, says hello to Butterscotch, a stable pony, at Pimlico on Wednesday. Trainer John Servis chose post 7 for Smarty Jones, the 7-5 favorite for Saturday's Preakness Stakes.

BALTIMORE - After all that he has been through this spring, trainer Nick Zito has a new worry: Feet, don't fail me now.

Zito's trials and travails hit another bump on Wednesday, when The Cliff's Edge turned up with a sore right front foot, a development that seriously compromises his chances of running in Saturday's 129th at Pimlico.

The Cliff's Edge was among 10 horses entered Wednesday against Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones, but his status, Zito said, is unlikely to be known before Friday.

"He has to be 100 percent, or he can't run," a dejected Zito said outside the Pimlico stakes barn late Wednesday morning. "I can't be stupid here. He's got a gravel, or an abscess. If it comes out by [Thursday], we've got a shot."

The Cliff's Edge lost both his front shoes on the sloppy track at Churchill Downs when finishing fifth in the Derby. Zito said his colt's feet were "stinging him" right after the race, but he expressed satisfaction with the progress The Cliff's Edge had made in recent days.

Wednesday morning, however, The Cliff's Edge took extra time to warm up before his routine training session, and then Zito was not happy with the way the colt walked after his bath.

The Cliff's Edge was placed in a tub of hot water and Epsom salts in an attempt to draw out the soreness. That treatment, Zito said, was alternated with ice. Zito said the injury was near the coronet band, which is at the top of the hoof wall.

Zito said he did not want to remove the shoe on that foot before the Preakness because The Cliff's Edge was recently re-shod after losing his shoes in the Derby. Zito admitted, though, that removing the shoe might give him a better idea of what he was dealing with.

"It's a Catch-22," Zito said. "You can't be putting the shoes on and off. If it works its way out, we'll go for it. If not, we'll go on to the Belmont." The Belmont Stakes, on June 5 at Belmont Park, is the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Zito said he decided to enter The Cliff's Edge in the Preakness just to buy some time on the chance the ailment is quickly alleviated. It costs $10,000 to enter the Preakness, and another $10,000 to start.

This foot bruise is the latest setback to befall Zito with his 3-year-olds this spring. Birdstone, last year's Champagne Stakes winner, disappointed in his final prep for the Derby and then finished eighth in the Derby. He will skip the Preakness. Eurosilver developed an infection on the top of his head before the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, was forced to miss that race and the Derby, and subsequently was removed from Zito's care by owner Mahmoud Fustok of Buckram Oak Farm.

The Cliff's Edge provided the stable's only moment of glory this spring, when he captured the Blue Grass. He was then installed as the morning-line favorite in the Derby.

Even if The Cliff's Edge is forced to scratch from the Preakness, Zito still will be represented by Sir Shackleton, the winner of the Derby Trial.

Smarty Jones, who has won all seven of his starts, was installed as the 7-5 favorite on the early line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Frank Carulli, the morning-line maker at Pimlico, has Smarty Jones favored at 8-5. Smarty Jones landed post position 7 on Wednesday for the $1 million race.

As at the Derby, post positions were selected in a two-step process. First, Wednesday morning, a blind draw was held to determine the order of selection for the 11 runners. Then, Wednesday evening at the ESPN Zone in Baltimore's Inner Harbor area, a representative of each runner picked his horse's post.

Smarty Jones had the second overall pick. His trainer, John Servis, said he took seven because "we've had a lot of luck with seven."

"He was seven in the Southwest, seven in the Rebel, and the Kentucky Derby was his seventh win in a row, so we're sticking with it," Servis said.

Servis also tried to set up a scenario similar to the Derby, in which Smarty Jones stalked the speedy Lion Heart. By taking a post in the middle of the gate, he forced the hand of those who chose after him.

Lion Heart had the very next pick. His trainer, Patrick Biancone, elected to start from the rail, a clear indication Lion Heart will again attempt to lead from start to finish.

With a long run to the first turn in this 1 3/16-mile race, and a relatively sensible field of 11, posts should not be of significant consequence. Still, such well-regarded runners as Eddington and Rock Hard Ten drew wide, in posts 9 and 10, respectively.

The only mild surprise among the entrants was Song of the Sword, who was not confirmed for the race until Wednesday morning. The Preakness will mark his fourth start in six weeks. He finished 11th in the Derby.

Of the 11 entrants, six - Borrego, Imperialism, Lion Heart, Smarty Jones, Song of the Sword, and The Cliff's Edge - ran in the Derby. The remaining five - Eddington, Little Matth Man, Rock Hard Ten, Sir Shackleton, and Water Cannon - are newcomers to the Triple Crown.

Smarty Jones arrived at Pimlico around 1 p.m. on Wednesday after a van ride from Philadelphia Park. He took up residence in Stall 40 of the stakes barn, the traditional spot for the Derby winner. Eddington showed up one hour later, and appeared remarkably fresh for having taken a 4 1/2-hour van ride from Belmont Park on a warm afternoon.

Borrego, Lion Heart, and Rock Hard Ten all arrived Wednesday afternoon after flights from Kentucky.

Little Matth Man will be sent by van from Philadelphia Park on Friday. Song of the Sword is scheduled to travel by van from Aqueduct on Friday. Water Cannon is stabled nearby at Bowie and will not be on the grounds until Saturday morning.

The Preakness is the 12th race on a 13-race card that begins at 10:30 a.m Eastern. Post time for the Preakness is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. The Preakness will be televised live by NBC, beginning at 5 p.m.

It has been unseasonably warm here in recent days, and that trend will continue through the week, according to the National Weather Service. The high temperature Wednesday was 87 degrees, and temperatures in the mid- to upper 80's are predicted through Saturday. There is the possibility of a late-afternoon shower each day, but nothing that is expected to affect the Preakness.