04/18/2004 11:00PM

Horses, riders jockey for position

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Trainer Nick Zito towels off The Cliff's Edge, winner of the Blue Grass on April 10 and one of the top contenders in a full field of 20 expected for the 130th Kentucky Derby on May 1.

The victory by Quintons Gold Rush in Saturday's Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, and the subsequent decision by jockey Jerry Bailey to jettison both he and Read the Footnotes in favor of Wimbledon, caused a domino effect in terms of both the expected field and the probable riders for the 130th Kentucky Derby on May 1 at Churchill Downs.

Quintons Gold Rush vaulted into the top 20 Derby contenders, ranked by graded stakes earnings, because of the first-prize money in the Lexington. He moved past the likes of the well-regarded pair of Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, both of whom are unlikely to make the field unless a rash of unexpected defections occurs in the next week.

The Derby can have a maximum of 20 runners. If more than that are entered on April 28, as is expected in this wide-open year, the field is determined by earnings in graded stakes races.

Quintons Gold Rush got a Beyer Speed Figure of 102 in the Lexington. Who will ride him in the Derby remains a question.

Bailey, faced with a number of choices, on Monday decided to go with Wimbledon, the Louisiana Derby winner and the fifth-place finisher in the Santa Anita Derby. That ended a protracted process for Bailey and his agent, Ron Anderson, who also were being sought to ride Eddington, Quintons Gold Rush, and Read the Footnotes.

According to Anderson, Eddington was a leading choice, but he was eliminated because it appears unlikely he will get into the race. Anderson said that Rick Violette Jr., the trainer of Read the Footnotes, wanted to lock up a rider last week, and Anderson would not commit to him at that time.

In the interim, Anderson got Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby winner, to hold off on naming a rider for Wimbledon until Monday. After Quintons Gold Rush won, Anderson said he still felt an obligation to go with Baffert, though he said the process was "a scramble."

"Bob was willing to wait," Anderson said Monday. "I wasn't nuts about Wimbledon's Santa Anita Derby, but I'm a huge believer that you can eliminate one race. If you eliminate that race, he's one of the top choices. And Bob has had a couple run well in the Kentucky Derby, you know?"

Edgar Prado was Violette's first choice as a replacement for Bailey on Read the Footnotes, but Prado and agent Bob Frieze have decided to stick with Birdstone. Violette then narrowed his choices to Robby Albarado and Cornelio Velasquez, and decided to go with Albarado.

"He's an up-and-coming star," Violette said of Albarado, who was the regular rider for the 2003 Horse of the Year, Mineshaft. "If he's good enough to ride Mineshaft for Will Farish, he's good enough to ride Read the Footnotes for Seth Klarman."

Quintons Gold Rush is still in need of a rider for the Derby, but his trainer, Steve Asmussen, was in no hurry Monday to commit. Prominent jockeys currently without Derby mounts include Velasquez; Corey Nakatani, who rode Quintons Gold Rush in two races at Santa Anita this spring; and Patrick Valenzuela, who is eligible to return to riding this weekend after receiving a stay of his suspension from the California Horse Racing Board.

Valenzuela rode Quintons Gold Rush to victory in a maiden race at Santa Anita on Jan. 18. Quintons Gold Rush was trained then by Mike Mitchell, who is a close friend of Valenzuela's, but the colt has since been transferred to Asmussen. It is also unclear if officials in Kentucky would grant Valenzuela a license, though most states usually honor another state's ruling.

Quintons Gold Rush is 17th on the earnings list. Value Plus, who is number 18, was described by trainer Todd Pletcher on Monday as being "very doubtful" for the Derby, but Pletcher said his status could change "if there are defections from a major contender or two."

"As of now, I'm not planning on running," Pletcher said.

If Value Plus comes out of the race, as expected, that would allow Preachinatthebar to get in. Baffert, who trains Preachinatthebar, said Gary Stevens would have the mount.

Stevens was hoping to ride Rock Hard Ten, but his chances of making the Derby field appear bleak because of insufficient earnings in graded stakes races. Even though Saratoga County, Fire Slam, and Pomeroy - all of whom have more earnings than Rock Hard Ten - were removed from Derby consideration after racing in the Lexington, there are still several horses - Song of the Sword, Pro Prado, Tricky Taboo, and Eddington - in front of Rock Hard Ten, whose connections desire to run if there is room.

Song of the Sword would become the first bubble horse to get in if Value Plus defects. Song of the Sword's chances of running might hinge on St Averil, whose Derby status will not be determined until after a workout on Saturday at Santa Anita.

"We're still up in the air right now," Rafael Becerra, the trainer of St Averil, said Monday, one day after St Averil worked five furlongs in 59.20 seconds at Santa Anita. "If he goes, everything has to be 100 percent. The last race kind of knocked him out." Becerra said

St Averil is training with bar shoes to protect his tender front feet.

In other Derby developments:

* The Cliff's Edge, the Blue Grass Stakes winner, worked five furlongs in 59.60 seconds at Churchill Downs on Monday with exercise rider Maxine Correa for trainer Nick Zito. The time was the second-best of 32 at the distance.

* Borrego, the Arkansas Derby runner-up, worked three furlongs in 37.40 seconds at Churchill Downs Monday. Exercise rider Andy Durnin was up for trainer Beau Greely, who said Borrego would work five furlongs on Sunday in his final Derby drill.

* Pollard's Vision, the Illinois Derby winner, worked five furlongs in 1:01 at Keeneland on Sunday, then was sent by van to Churchill Downs with Pletcher-trained stablemate Limehouse.

* Rock Hard Ten worked seven furlongs in 1:27.60 on Sunday at Churchill.

* Read the Footnotes is still training at Palm Meadows in Florida, where he is scheduled to have a workout on Wednesday. He is scheduled to travel to Kentucky on Friday.

* Friends Lake, the Florida Derby winner, was scheduled to leave Payson Park in Florida on Tuesday and arrive at Churchill Downs on Wednesday.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee and Mike Welsch