03/31/2005 12:00AM

High Fly anchors Zito's team

Likely favorite High Fly (above) and probable second choice Noble Causeway will face seven others in Saturday's Florida Derby, a race their trainer, Nick Zito, has never won.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Nick Zito has always considered the Florida Derby to be one of his favorite Kentucky Derby preps, despite the fact he has never won the race. He should like the race even better after he sends out both the favored High Fly and second choice Noble Causeway against seven other 3-year-olds in Saturday's 54th renewal of the Grade 1 race.

The race tops a 13-race card that includes four other stakes, three of which are graded, and will be shown live on ABC with post time at 5:45 p.m.

Zito has used the Florida Derby as a stepping-stone to three of his four Triple Crown victories. Both his Kentucky Derby winners, Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994, competed in - but did not win - the Florida Derby. The same is true of Louis Quatorze, who finished fourth in the 1996 Florida Derby and went on to win the Preakness later that spring.

"We came close to winning the Florida Derby a few times - with Strike the Gold, The Cliff's Edge, and Suave Prospect," said Zito. "Naturally, I'd love to win it, but just running in the Florida Derby has done wonderful things for some of my horses who have come out of the race, and, at least subconsciously,

I think, it's probably more a means to an end for me."

This will mark the first year the Florida Derby has been run in April since Cryptoclearance outgamed No More Flowers and Talinum in 1987. It was moved from mid-March to April this year because track management wanted to try keeping Northern-based outfits at Gulfstream for a few extra weeks.

Zito's chances of winning the Florida Derby have never been better than they'll be Saturday. High Fly will be a deserving favorite, having, won 4 of his 5 career starts, including the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth by three-quarters of a length over Bandini.

A homebred son of Atticus, High Fly was turned over to Zito by owner Charlotte Weber following his third-place finish earlier this meet in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes. High Fly had his training schedule disrupted briefly because of a slight temperature March 25, but his good half-mile work at Gulfstream on Tuesday has Zito confident coming into the race.

"He had a one-day temperature," said Zito. "Horses get temperatures all the time. He looked good to me during his work, and he's 100 percent coming into the race."

High Fly rallied from just off the pace of B. B. Best under jockey Jerry Bailey to win the Fountain of Youth, and Zito envisions a similar pace scenario developing Saturday.

"B. B. Best will probably go to the lead, and we'll probably be chasing him again," said Zito.

Noble Causeway gives Zito an imposing one-two punch in the race. A son of Giant's Causeway, Noble Causeway has progressed steadily since launching his career over the Belmont turf in October, and comes into the race off two easy victories at the same 1 1/8-mile distance as the Florida Derby. The stretch-running Noble Causeway will be reunited with Edgar Prado in the Florida Derby, which is his stakes debut.

B. B. Best set the early pace and finished third in the Fountain of Youth. He figures to improve off the race, which was the first time he had run 1 1/8 miles. A son of Yes It's True trained by Eddie Plesa Jr., B. B. Best won two of the three divisions of Calder's Florida Stallion Stakes at 2 before concluding his juvenile campaign by running a troubled fourth behind Greater Good in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.

Papi Chullo, a maiden, recovered from early trouble to finish fourth in the Fountain of Youth. Plagued by foot problems earlier this year, he has switched from glue-on shoes to regular shoes since his last start and will be ridden for the first time by Robby Albarado.

Vicarage could prove to be a worthy substitute for his injured stablemate Bandini, who was forced to pass the race because of a bruised foot. Vicarage won an allowance sprint and finished third in the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes here earlier in the meet, and comes off his strongest performance - second behind the undefeated High Limit in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.

Park Avenue Ball, Mighty Mecke, Wallstreet Scandal, and Evil Minister were all last-minute additions to the field after both Bandini and Holy Bull winner Closing Argument missed the race because of foot bruises.