01/01/2004 12:00AM

The gang's all here, and Zito's four lead the pack

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Some years, it's a bust. For whatever reason, the most promising candidates for the Kentucky Derby are located anywhere but south Florida when the calendar flips to a new year.

And some years, it's a boom. Derby prospects converge en masse on Gulfstream Park and the other nearby training facilities, rendering south Florida a galaxy of 3-year-old stars.

So far, the outlook for 2004 is looking like a boom.

Foremost among the 3-year-old Derby prospects is the powerhouse contingent trained by Nick Zito at the Palm Meadows training center near Boynton Beach.

Zito, ever the cautious optimist, said this week at Gulfstream: "It's way, way too early to begin talking Derby, at least in a meaningful way. I really don't want to get into all that yet. We've got, what, four months to go? The other day a friend was telling me about the future-book odds at Bally's in Las Vegas. And I said, 'Oh yeah? What was Vindication at this time last year?' "

Such sobering reminders are always relevant. Vindication, the reigning 2-year-old champion, never had another race after winning the 2002 Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Zito will try to avoid a similar fate as he progresses along the Derby trail with a foursome that makes him the early favorite to win the Derby for a third time. He won with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994.

On Tuesday, two of Zito's top prospects had their first workouts since being given layoffs, breezing three furlongs at Palm Meadows. In separate moves, Birdstone, winner of the Champagne Stakes for Marylou Whitney, and Eurosilver, winner of the Breeders' Futurity for Buckram Oak Farm, each went in 37.40 over a fast surface.

"They both went real easy, real nice," said Zito.

Zito has set mid-February as the ideal time for Birdstone and Eurosilver to return to the races. The options are plentiful - both are still eligible for second-level allowance conditions, and the seven-furlong Hutcheson and 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth are set for Feb. 14.

"Obviously, I would not like to run any of my horses against each other until the big race," said Zito, referring to the 130th Derby on May 1 at Churchill Downs. "I don't think it'll be tricky. I'm going to do it right."

Zito said The Cliff's Edge, winner of the Iroquois Stakes and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes for owner Robert La Penta, probably will ship to Oaklawn Park for the new bonus series at the Arkansas track. A $5 million bonus is being offered for a sweep of the March 20 Rebel Stakes, the April 10 Arkansas Derby, and the Kentucky Derby.

"That's what Mr. La Penta has indicated to me that he wants to do," said Zito. "The Cliff's Edge isn't back into training as seriously as my other horses. We let him down after he won the [Nov. 29] Kentucky Jockey Club, so he'll be back a little later than the others."

The fourth Zito hopeful, El Prado Rob, is being pointed to the Jan. 17 Holy Bull Stakes, the first two-turn prep of the Gulfstream meet. El Prado Rob, also owned by La Penta, ran a distant sixth in the Remsen.

"He didn't ship too well [from Churchill to Aqueduct]," said Zito. "Hopefully he'll rebound in the Holy Bull."

Read the Footnotes, the Remsen winner, heads the rest of the south Florida contingent of Derby hopefuls. Owned by Klaravich Stables and trained by Rick Violette, Read the Footnotes also has taken up residence at Palm Meadows after shipping down from New York. Violette has said the Fountain of Youth is the likely comeback spot for his stable star.

As for the rest:

Tapit, unbeaten in two starts, including the Nov. 15 Laurel Futurity, is still being trained by Michael Dickinson at his home base, Tapeta Farm in northeast Maryland, where the weather has been unseasonably mild in recent weeks. Dickinson said he will soon bring Tapit, owned by Ron Winchell, to Palm Meadows. There is no definite return spot.

Sir Oscar, based at Calder with Manny Azpurua, is scheduled to return in the Fountain of Youth. Owned by International Fair Play Inc., Sir Oscar terrorized the opposition at Calder last summer and fall by winning six straight races, including a sweep of the Florida Stallion series.

Silver Wagon, winner of the Hopeful for Buckram Oak, will try to rebound in the Holy Bull after finishing third in the Dec. 13 What a Pleasure Stakes at Calder. Silver Wagon is based at Calder with Ralph Ziadie.

Second of June, winner of the What a Pleasure Stakes in his fifth career start, also is expected for the Holy Bull. Second of June is based at Calder and is owned by Barbara Cesare, whose son, Bill, is the trainer.

Gulfstream at a glance

RACING SCHEDULE: 92 days; Jan. 3 through April 25; Dark Mondays and Tuesdays in January and April, except Monday, Jan. 19; dark Tuesdays only Feb. 1 through March 29.

POST TIME: 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 1:30 p.m. weekdays; 2:45 p.m. on Fridays from March 19 through April 23.

MEET HIGHLIGHTS: Sunshine Millions, Jan. 24; Grade 1, $500,000 Donn Handicap, Feb. 7; Grade 2, $250,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes, Feb. 14; Grade 1, $250,000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap, Feb. 22; Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby, March13

ADMISSIONS: Grandstand, $3 weekdays, $5 (includes $2 betting voucher) Saturdays and Sundays; clubhouse, $5; turf club, $15.

SEATING: Grandstand, $2.50; clubhouse $3.50; turf club, $10

LOCATION: 901 S. Federal Highway Hallandale Beach, Fl. 33009; U.S. Highway 1 between Ives Dairy Rd. and Hallandale Beach Blvd.

PHONE: (954) 454-7000

INTERNET: www.gulfstreampark.com