04/25/2004 11:00PM

Getting down to the wire

The Cliff's Edge, with Maxine Correa in the saddle, hits the track at Churchill Downs to tune up for Saturday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Several of the leading contenders for Saturday's 130th Kentucky Derby, including likely favorite The Cliff's Edge, remained sharp on Monday with key final workouts. But the intrigue for this Derby continues to extend beyond the track because more than the maximum of 20 runners desire to participate in the race.

The clock is ticking for Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, who will be denied starting spots in the Derby if there are no defections from the likely field of runners between now and Wednesday morning, the deadline for entries to be submitted to the Churchill Downs racing office.

As of Monday, the situation was thus: 23 horses were still under consideration for the Derby. Value Plus, however, is expected to come out. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, said he would only run if a speed horse, such as Lion Heart or Smarty Jones, dropped out of the Derby. Still, with 22 horses pointing for the race, two will be excluded. Under the Derby's rules, if more than 20 horses are entered, the field is determined by earnings in graded stakes races. Eddington and Rock Hard Ten have the smallest bankrolls.

There is no also-eligible list for the Derby, so the 20 runners who make the field when entries close on Wednesday would be the final field, even if one of those horses is scratched before Saturday.

On Wednesday, entries for the Derby will close at 10 a.m., according to Doug Bredar, the racing secretary at Churchill Downs. The field will be announced at 11:30 a.m., and then a blind draw will immediately take place to determine the order in which post positions will be selected. Then, beginning at 5 p.m., post positions will be chosen by a representative of each horse during a one-hour telecast on ESPN.

There was almost as much commotion during The Cliff's Edge's final workout. The Blue Grass Stakes winner was scheduled to go in company with Mazhouz, a stablemate from trainer Nick Zito's barn. But soon after those two broke off at the half-mile pole, a pair of workers from trainer Dallas Stewart joined in. The Cliff's Edge, with exercise rider Maxine Correa, dropped back to last among that quartet, then swooped past everyone in the homestretch while nimbly splitting his three workmates and a trio of gallopers who were in the middle of the track.

Daily Racing Form timed The Cliff's Edge in 47.51 seconds for a half-mile on a fast track. Churchill's official tab had The Cliff's Edge going five furlongs in 1:01.

"It was eventful, but it turned out okay," Zito said. "It's hectic Derby week. Maxine did a great job. I just wanted him to come home well. I'm real happy."

Also working Monday at Churchill Downs, in gorgeous spring weather, were Lion Heart, Read the Footnotes, Rock Hard Ten, and Quintons Gold Rush.

Lion Heart, who finished second to The Cliff's Edge in the Blue Grass, was timed in 47.90 for a half-mile by Daily Racing Form. Exercise rider Jean Claude was aboard. Churchill's tab had Lion Heart in 47 seconds flat.

"The work was fast enough. Not too fast, not too slow," said Lion Heart's trainer, Patrick Biancone. "If perfect can exist, it was perfect."

Lion Heart has been training at Keeneland. He was sent by van to Churchill on Monday morning, and returned to Keeneland following the workout. Biancone said Lion Heart would return to Churchill on Friday night or Saturday morning.

Read the Footnotes, the Fountain of Youth Stakes winner who is coming into the Derby off a seven-week layoff, also went a half-mile, with exercise rider Morna McDowall. Daily Racing Form had him in 48.35 seconds. Churchill's tab had Read the Footnotes in 47.60 seconds.

"It was a nice little breeze, with some imperceptible acceleration at the eighth pole," said Rick Violette Jr., who trains Read the Footnotes. "He didn't need to do any more. If he's not fit by now, I didn't do my job."

Rock Hard Ten worked a sharp five furlongs in 59.68 seconds under jockey Craig Perret. "It was a pretty impressive work, I thought," said his trainer, Jason Orman. "He's very athletic. He's a good-moving horse."

Quintons Gold Rush, the Lexington Stakes winner, hit the track before dawn and worked five furlongs in 1:01.40 for trainer Steve Asmussen, whose assistant, Scott Blasi, was in the saddle.

At Tapeta Farm in Maryland, Wood Memorial Stakes winner Tapit was timed in 1:06.80 for five furlongs by his trainer, Michael Dickinson. Jockey Ramon Dominguez was up.

"He went beautiful on the dirt," Dominguez said from Maryland. "I can tell he's just getting better. He's improving."

Tapit is scheduled to fly to Kentucky from Maryland on Wednesday.

Castledale and St Averil arrived here on Monday afternoon after a flight from California. Song of the Sword was scheduled to be sent to Churchill by van from Keeneland on Tuesday. If Eddington gets in, he will fly from New York on Wednesday.

On Sunday, the most impressive work of the day was turned in by Louisiana Derby winner Wimbledon, who sped five furlongs on a sloppy track in 59.40 seconds.

Also working five furlongs Sunday at Churchill were Borrego (1:03.74, according to DRF), Friends Lake (1:03), and the Todd Pletcher-trained duo of Limehouse (1:01) and Pollard's Vision (1:00.89, according to DRF).

At Belmont Park, Eddington worked five furlongs in 1:00.06, and Value Plus went a half-mile in 49.62 seconds.

* The weather was delightful at Churchill Downs on Monday, with a high of 67 degrees, and it was supposed to stay nice for the next few days. Scattered thunderstorms are forecast by the National Weather Service, however, for both Friday, the day of the Kentucky Oaks, and Saturday. The high temperature on Saturday is predicted to be 75 degrees.

- additional reporting byDavid Grening and Karen M. Johnson