03/31/2005 1:00AM

Ghostzapper defection clears way for Eddington

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Ever since Eddington won the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap here on March 5, trainer Mark Hennig had been thinking about sending him to the Grade 1 Oaklawn Handicap next Saturday. But after learning that Horse of the Year Ghostzapper was out of the race, Hennig's decision became a no-brainer.

"We're headed that way," Hennig said at his Gulfstream Park barn Thursday, shortly after Eddington had worked five furlongs in 1:00.40. "I'd had the Oaklawn Handicap in the back of my mind all along, and as a result I was keeping his training on a schedule to be there. The timing of the news about Ghostzapper worked out perfectly, since [Eddington] was down to work a half-mile this morning anyway. I just had him go a nice five-eighths instead."

Eddington, who placed in several important Grade 1 races at 3, has flourished here this winter. In addition to his impressive victory in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, for which he earned a career-best 113 Beyer Speed Figure, Eddington also won an allowance race and finished third behind Saint Liam and Dubai World Cup winner Roses in May in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap.

"He's really matured since we brought him down here to win that turf race last fall at Calder," said Hennig, referring to the Calder Derby, "and he has turned into the 4-year-old we always thought he could be."

Eddington is scheduled to ship to Oaklawn on Wednesday.

Madcap Escapade dodges Ashado

Trainer Frank Brothers has reached a final decision on Madcap Escapade's next start, choosing Keeneland's seven-furlong Vinery Madison Stakes, a Grade 3 race on April 13, over the Grade 1 Apple Blossom four days earlier at Oaklawn, where she would have faced a possible confrontation with divisional champion Ashado.

"I decided to take the more conservative route," Brothers said, because "we'd like to run her at Churchill Downs on Derby Day in the Humana Distaff. There was a good case to be made for going to Oaklawn, but from my experience in the game, it's always better to be more conservative than go the other way."

Madcap Escapade worked seven furlongs in 1:25.40 at Gulfstream on Thursday.

Madcap Escapade, whose only career loss came at the hands of Ashado in the 2004 Kentucky Oaks, returned from a nine-month layoff to post an easy victory in the seven-furlong Shirley Jones Handicap here on Feb. 19. Brothers, who usually stables his horses at Churchill Downs, said Madcap Escapade would fly out on Sunday and go directly to Keeneland. Horses from Florida are restricted from shipping into the Churchill Downs barn area because of the recent strangles outbreak at the Palm Meadows training center.

Track hopes crowd is manageable

Since its 1952 inception, the Florida Derby has been a destination event, an annual celebration to mark a high point of the racing season not only at Gulfstream Park, but throughout Florida and beyond.

"Even for people who never go to a horse race, this is the one time of the year that they do," said Mike Tanner, director of marketing and media for Gulfstream. "It's been a day that many people, both from out of town and in Florida, have circled on their calendars."

The Florida Derby typically

has attracted an ontrack crowd approaching 30,000, with the record of 33,864 set in 1989. Even with the old facility, which was razed last spring to begin the massive reconstruction project that is scheduled to be complete next year, Gulfstream had a difficult time accommodating such overflow crowds.

So imagine what the scene might be like Saturday. So far at the 2005 meet, conducted in a makeshift facility consisting of several air-conditioned tents and a limited amount of walking-around space, the biggest crowd has been 8,714 (Sunshine Millions Day, Jan. 29). Things could get awfully crowded Saturday.

"We're anticipating right around 10,000 Saturday," said Gulfstream president Scott Savin. "That is by design. The last five or six years, we've had major concert acts on Florida Derby Day, and we calculated out that about 40 percent of attendance was driven by the combination of entertainment and racing." There is no concert Saturday.

Savin said that Gulfstream, as it currently exists, "could probably hold up to 15,000 bodies, but we want people to be comfortable, to be able to bet and eat and find some sun or shade, whatever the weather dictates. Our primary goal is for every patron to have a quality experience."

Savin said he is not concerned that the aberration of 2005 might affect attendance for future runnings of the Florida Derby.

"Given the facility that's going to be up next year, we should be able to hit any attendance figure we would target," he said. "Getting back to the mid- to high 20's should be no problem, if in fact that's the goal. Again, we'll be less concerned with a final figure than how fans enjoy themselves when they're here."

Zito in position to snap streak

Nick Zito is 0 for 16 in the Florida Derby, but the odds clearly say that winless streak is likely to be snapped Saturday, considering he has the two favorites in High Fly and Noble Causeway.

The colts have highly complementary styles, with High Fly speeding out early and Noble Causeway rolling home from the back.

"I thought High Fly made great strides when he held off Bandini in the Fountain of Youth," said Zito. "He looked very, very professional in that race."

Noble Causeway, an impressive allowance winner on the Fountain of Youth undercard, "was very gallant the way he won that race," said Zito. "I thought the No. 1 thing was the sheer determination he showed. He's coming on strong right now."

Barnes & Noble Causeway

Noble Causeway gets part of his name from a highly popular retail chain.

Noble Causeway, by Giant's Causeway, is owned by Leonard Riggio, the chairman of Barnes & Noble bookstores. The colt runs under the name of My Meadowview Farms, the Waterville, N.Y., farm where Riggio and his wife, Louise, board their Thoroughbred mares and show horses.

Incidentally, High Fly's owner also has deep pockets. He races for the Live Oak Plantation of Charlotte Weber, an heiress to the Campbell's Soup fortune.

Vicarage follows dad's footsteps

Vicarage, who was entered in the Florida Derby only after his Todd Pletcher stablemate Bandini was forced out with a bruised hoof, has a birthright to victory Saturday.

Vicarage is from the first crop of the young sire Vicar, who captured the 1999 Florida Derby for trainer Carl Nafzger and jockey Shane Sellers. Vicar moved into contention down the backstretch, then had a lengthy battle with Cat Thief before holding off Wondertross by a nose.

Vicarage opened his 3-year-old campaign by winning an entry-level allowance sprint on Jan. 21. He finished a distant third behind the Pletcher-trained Proud Accolade in the Feb. 5 Hutcheson, then ran second at 21-1 behind High Limit in the March 12 Louisiana Derby.

Vicarage is owned by Dogwood Stables, whose president, Cot Campbell, said he "called an audible."

"We had not planned on running Vicarage until April 16 in the Blue Grass, but when the Florida Derby lost a couple of its heavy heads, we decided to go," he said.

- Gulfstream reverts to a five-day race week after Sunday. The track will be dark Mondays and Tuesdays through the end of the meet, April 24.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee