04/07/2004 11:00PM

If Wood's good, hello Derby

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The Gotham was designed to be an educational experience for the promising 3-year-old Eddington. Saturday's $750,000 at Aqueduct will determine if Eddington learned enough to get into his school of choice - the May 1 Kentucky Derby - or if he'll be left on the equine version of a waiting list.

In a year when graded stakes earnings will most likely determine the 20-horse field for the Kentucky Derby, Eddington would need to finish first or second in the Grade 1 Wood to secure a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate.

Eddington is not alone in that regard. Tapit, the Grade 3 Laurel Futurity winner, and Master David, Swingforthefences, Consecrate, and Little Matth Man - all of whom have placed in but not yet won a graded race - likely need a top-three finish to have a chance to run for the roses.

Eddington is the most intriguing member of the 11-horse field that will contest the nine-furlong race. He won a pair of two-turn races convincingly at Gulfstream Park, he is a son of Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, and he is being reunited with Hall of Fame rider Jerry Bailey.

Eddington has shown signs of immaturity in that he hasn't changed leads as professionally as trainer Mark Hennig would like. He didn't change leads at all in the Gotham, in which he was bumped at the start and finished third behind Saratoga County. Hennig ran Eddington in the Gotham to see how he would react when horses ran away from him early. Though Eddington did make a run, he was beaten three lengths.

"He did not switch leads, which probably kept him from maintaining his momentum that might have carried him up to be second," Hennig said. "I think he'll be more comfortable with a two-turn race.''

Eddington, who will break from post 5, should be forwardly placed in the Wood. Sinister G, who upset the Grade 2 Lane's End Stakes in front-running fashion, looks to be the main speed in this field, with Value Plus likely to stalk him.

Despite his Lane's End victory, Sinister G was made the 15-1 seventh choice in the Wood by New York Racing Association oddsmaker Don LaPlace.

"They want to see if the Lane's End was a fluke or if he's the real McCoy," said John Toscano Jr., who trains Sinister G for a partnership headed by his sons John Toscano III and Robert. "He's got to prove it to the press and the rest of the world. I'm pretty confident."

Value Plus ran second in a slowly run Florida Derby, but has fired two bullet works since, and his trainer, Todd Pletcher, is optimistic he will improve.

"If you look at his work tab, we did not press on him for the Florida Derby," Pletcher said. "By working him in company after the Florida Derby we turned the light on a little bit more, and we're in a position to move forward from the Florida Derby."

Tapit will need to rebound from a sixth-place finish in the Florida Derby. He came out of that race with mucus in his lungs, but his connections feel he is entering this race in better shape.

Master David, who was made the 5-2 morning-line favorite, hasn't run in two months. He missed the Florida Derby with a temperature, but won the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita in his last start. He returns to the track on which he finished second in last fall's Remsen. Alex Solis rides for trainer Bobby Frankel.

Swingforthefences, who won his maiden at Aqueduct last year, comes off a third-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby. Consecrate runs back two weeks after a fast-closing second in the WinStar Derby.

There has been one surprise after another in this Triple Crown prep season, which gives the connections of Cuba, Hornshope, Royal Assault, and Little Matth Man hope.

The Wood will be shown live on ESPN at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time in a one-hour telecast that includes the Grade 3 Bay Shore. It will be replayed on NBC during a live telecast of the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby at 4:30 p.m.