10/31/2003 12:00AM

Iroquois clash: Zito vs. Ward

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Existing in the enormous shadow of the Breeders' Cup, the Iroquois Stakes long has been an afterthought within the 2-year-old division. Yet a quick historical reference reveals that there is sufficient precedent for a horse to win the Iroquois and immediately become a divisional player.

At least that's the way it worked with a handful of previous Iroquois winners, including Richman, Ide, Exploit, and Harlan's Holiday. So when 11 2-year-olds clash Sunday in the 22nd running of the $100,000 Iroquois at Churchill Downs, the results of the one-mile race should be worth at least a passing glance - especially considering how most racing fans are fairly confident that no superstars took part in the BC Juvenile at Santa Anita last weekend.

Two of the top contenders in the Grade 3 Iroquois are trained by men who already have won the Kentucky Derby with horses who did not race in the BC Juvenile: Nick Zito, who will send out The Cliff's Edge, and John T. Ward Jr., who will saddle Grand Score.

Zito, who won the Derby in 1991 with Strike the Gold and in 1994 with Go for Gin, perpetually plays down the importance of the Breeders' Cup in relation to the Derby, and in fact bypassed the Juvenile with Eurosilver and Birdstone, two of the most accomplished 2-year-olds this year. The Cliff's Edge, said Zito, is "a beautiful horse, gorgeous-looking, and one of our better 2-year-olds this year. We're looking to go on with him."

Ward, who won the 2001 Derby with Monarchos, said he has taken his time with Grand Score, who will be making just his third start Sunday. "He has some good things ahead of him," said Ward.

Other major contenders in the Iroquois include Pro Prado, who is unbeaten in two starts; Korbyn Gold, winner of a minor stakes at Arlington Park in September for Steve Asmussen; and Blushing Indian, third as the odds-on favorite in the $200,000 Cradle Stakes in his last start.

The rest of the Iroquois field is Five Card Monty, War Image, Affirmlode, Wings on Springs, Mutachi, and Texas Deputy.

War Image may be the sleeper for former D. Wayne Lukas assistant Mike Maker, who will equip the colt with blinkers for the first time Sunday.

The 10-race program, which begins at 12:40 p.m. Eastern, also includes three allowances.