02/18/2004 12:00AM

The game of musical chairs begins

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Read the Footnotes' presence in the Florida Derby stirs the pot.

Trainers with multiple prospects for the Kentucky Derby, and jockeys sifting through various mounts, have both exciting and stressful choices to make as the May 1 Kentucky Derby draws closer. So it was on Wednesday, when decisions made by trainers Rick Violette and Todd Pletcher helped start the dominoes falling.

Violette said Read the Footnotes, the winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes, had recovered well from Saturday's furious finish and would return in the Florida Derby on March 13. Jerry Bailey has been riding Read the Footnotes, and is expected to stick with him.

Bailey also is the regular rider for Birdstone, who won an allowance race on Saturday at Gulfstream. The Florida Derby would seem a logical spot for Birdstone, but if trainer Nick Zito wants to be certain to retain Bailey for at least one more start - or if he wants to give Birdstone an easier race in his penultimate prep for the Derby - he could wait one week for the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park on March 20.

"I'm happy to commit to the Florida Derby, and if that helps others go elsewhere, I'm happy to help them," Violette said Wednesday morning from Palm Meadows, where Read the Footnotes trains.

One colt who will take on Read the Footnotes in the Florida Derby is Value Plus, who won an allowance race on Saturday at Gulfstream. His presence in the Florida Derby ties up jockey John Velazquez, whom trainer Bobby Frankel had been hoping would ride Master David in that race.

"The horse ran well over the track the other day," Pletcher said at Gulfstream Park of his reasoning for going in the Florida Derby, rather than the Louisiana Derby or Tampa Bay Derby. "I think it's important we get two, two-turn races into him if we are going to get to the Kentucky Derby. I'd rather run him a mile and an eighth at Gulfstream than a mile and a sixteenth at Fair Grounds or Tampa Bay."

Velazquez rides first call for Pletcher, so with Value Plus in the Florida Derby, Master David needs a rider. Frankel's other top choices are taken. Bailey, whom Frankel rides on most of his top horses, is scheduled to ride Read the Footnotes. And Alex Solis, who rode Master David to his victory in Santa Anita's Sham Stakes, has a conflict March 13 with A. P. Adventure in the Santa Anita Oaks.

Master David worked a half-mile in 48.40 seconds on Wednesday at Hollywood Park. "I moved up his work by a couple of days because it's supposed to rain," Frankel said.

Pletcher said he is planning on sending both Pollard's Vision and Shaniko to Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby on March 7. Limehouse, Pletcher's winner of the Hutcheson Stakes, also could run there, or await the Tampa Bay Derby on March 14. Velazquez would have his pick of those mounts. The Louisiana Derby and Tampa Bay Derby are also under consideration by Violette for Swingforthefences, who beat Shaniko in an allowance race at Gulfstream on Saturday. That's another mount currently held by Bailey.

"The Louisiana Derby is a little quick back, but the advantage is that he has five weeks on the other side of it to get ready for his next race," Violette said Wednesday. "He and Read the Footnotes both went back to the track this morning. I'm very happy with both of them."

The Louisiana Derby is developing into a top-notch race. In addition to Limehouse, Pollard's Vision, Shaniko, and Swingforthefences, others pointing for that race include Fire Slam, the Lecomte Stakes winner; Gradepoint, who won last Sunday's Risen Star Stakes; Shadowland, the Lecomte-runner-up, and California invaders Borrego and Preachinatthebar.

Borrego comes off a second-place finish to Master David in the Sham. His trainer, Beau Greely, said Victor Espinoza would take over for the Louisiana Derby, replacing Tyler Baze.

"We're learning a little with every start," Greely said Wednesday. "I think he took the lead too soon last time. I think he'll get better with distance. Fair Grounds has a nice, long stretch. You can make up ground there."

Richard Mandella, the trainer of Minister Eric, had the option of running that colt in an entry-level allowance race on Friday at Santa Anita, but said he will instead wait for the Baldwin Stakes on Feb. 28.

"The timing of the Baldwin is good to get him started," Mandella said. "I couldn't run him in the allowance race because in his one important work he went too slow."

There is very little of significance this weekend. Only one member of the Derby Watch's top 25, The Cliff's Edge, is expected to compete, and that in Saturday's $100,000 Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay. Also Saturday are the $100,000 Palm Beach Stakes, scheduled for 1 1/8 miles on turf at Gulfstream, and the $75,000 Best Turn Stakes at six furlongs at Aqueduct.

- additional reporting by Brad Free and David Grening