03/30/2005 1:00AM

Four heads better than one

Email
Horsephotos
Trainer Nick Zito has four viable Kentucky Derby prospects, including Noble Causeway, who will run in Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream.

You see it every year. There is a reason coaches like Rick Pitino and Roy Williams frequently return to the NCAA Final Four, and a reason why trainer Nick Zito has his own final four pointing for this year's Kentucky Derby. They've been there before and know how to get back.

Even by Zito's high standards, this spring has been particularly gratifying. A two-time Kentucky Derby winner, Zito has four 3-year-olds among the top 25 of Derby Watch, including the pro-tem favorite, Sun King, who is scheduled to have his final Derby prep in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 16. Two of Zito's runners, High Fly and Noble Causeway, were entered on Wednesday in the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park. Zito also has Bellamy Road, whom Zito would prefer to run in the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 9.

And last week, Zito was announced as one of five finalists as trainer on this year's Hall of Fame ballot.

"For me, the ultimate would be if we get in, but it's just a great honor to be nominated," Zito said Wednesday from Florida. "It was tough last year, with Shug McGaughey. There's so many great trainers. This year it's equally tough with Gary Jones and Mel Stute and Dale Baird and Johnny Veitch. That's a who's who.

"I just don't want to be Erica Kane," he said, referring to the character played by Susan Lucci, the soap opera star who was repeatedly passed over for an Emmy before finally winning.

Zito has made his mark in the sport by developing 3-year-olds. His craftsmanship has brought Noble Causeway and Sun King to this point, and his reputation enabled him to get both Bellamy Road and High Fly after they began their careers with other trainers. Five weeks out from the May 7 Kentucky Derby, Zito has four legitimate contenders.

"We're very blessed to be in this position," he said.

None of the four, according to Zito, has come close to peaking. Having trod this road many times before, Zito believes he knows how a 3-year-old should progress in the spring. That is why he was not concerned when Sun King's Beyer Speed Figure for the Tampa Bay Derby came up a modest 91.

"You know the way I've been doing this," Zito said. "My job is to keep them on the path. I'm happy with his progression. Whether he got a

110 Beyer last time or a 90 Beyer, I just want him to stay on the path. I can guarantee you this - his Beyer will be better in his next race."

This week, Zito will see how far High Fly and Noble Causeway have progressed. High Fly, who was initially trained by Bill White, has raced once for Zito, winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes. This week, however, High Fly missed a day of training when he spiked a temperature.

"He had a temperature when it got to be 94 here," he said. "It was very hot. As soon as the temperature went back to normal, he went back to normal."

Noble Causeway has made steady progress this winter at Gulfstream. He defeated maidens on the day of the Holy Bull Stakes, and beat a first-level allowance field on the day of the Fountain of Youth. The Florida Derby marks the stakes debut for this $1.15 million yearling purchase.

"He's a Giant's Causeway who looks like he wants a distance of ground," Zito said. "Now, this is a big step. Hopefully he just keeps going."

Both Bellamy Road and Sun King were shipped by Zito to Churchill Downs last week because of the strangles outbreak at Palm Meadows, where both were training. That proved fortuitous, since Churchill this week announced it is temporarily not accepting any more runners based at Palm Meadows.

Still, the tentacles of the strangles situation may reach Zito. He would prefer to keep Bellamy Road and Sun King apart, and was hopeful of running Bellamy Road in the Wood Memorial. Aqueduct, however, as of Wednesday still was not allowing horses who had been at Palm Meadows to ship in. If that policy holds into next week, Zito will not be able to send Bellamy Road to New York.

"I'm fine, other than the stress factor," Zito said. "I've got a few things to worry about. He's either going to run in the Wood or somewhere else. He's nominated to all the stakes around the country. If he doesn't go in the Wood, we'll go to Plan B. All I can do is not be intimidated by the situation and have a back-up plan. If I have to call an audible, I will.

"It is an inconvenience. This is supposed to be fun. You're supposed to enjoy the journey. It's hard enough to worry about having the horse without this. Has it been a strain? No question. I just want to stay focused, pay attention, and stay the course."

In other Derby developments:

- If Bellamy Road does not run in the Wood and has to wait a week, that would help jockey Javier Castellano. He also rides Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, who is scheduled to race the same day as the Wood in the Oaklawn Handicap. If Castellano is forced to choose between the two on April 9, Jerry Bailey would pick up whichever horse Castellano abandons.

- Sort It Out, who disappointed in the Louisiana Derby in his first start for trainer Bob Baffert, will try to make amends in the $500,000 WinStar Derby at Sunland Park on Saturday. While the WinStar Derby offers a rich purse, it is not a graded stakes race, and thus did not attract any serious Derby contenders.

- Louisiana Derby winner High Limit, preparing for the Blue Grass, worked five furlongs in 1:02.20 at Churchill Downs on Wednesday.

- Gotham Stakes winner Survivalist, who is scheduled to make his next start in the Wood Memorial, worked a half-mile in 51.82 seconds at Belmont Park.

DERBY WATCH

WHO'S HOT: Blues and Royals, the runaway winner of the United Arab Emirates Derby, and Flower Alley and Wild Desert, the one-two finishers in the Lane's End Stakes, are the three new additions to this week's top 25 of Derby Watch. Blues and Royals is 30-1 on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, with Flower Alley at 40-1, and Wild Desert at 50-1.

WHO'S NOT: Magna Graduate and Spanish Chestnut were removed from the list following poor performances in the Lane's End. Uncle Denny also came off the list because of surgery that has knocked him from Derby contention.

ON THE BUBBLE: B. B. Best and Papi Chullo both could work their way into the top 25 with excellent efforts in the Florida Derby, which is missing two of its expected big guns, Bandini and Closing Argument.

- Jay Privman