03/17/2005 12:00AM

It ought to be easy pickings for Sun King


Trainer Nick Zito had several more lucrative options for Sun King's second start of the season than the $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby. But when it comes to his Kentucky Derby prospects, money is no object for Zito, who will send out Sun King as an overwhelming favorite in the marquee event on a 13-race Festival Day program at Tampa Bay Downs. The card also includes the $150,000 Florida Oaks, $100,000 Hillsborough Stakes, and $75,000 Holiday Inn Turf Dash.

is one of five horses Zito has on the Kentucky Derby trail. He became the leader of that group after opening his 3-year-old campaign with an impressive 5 3/4-length first-level allowance victory at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 26. The performance earned Sun King, a son of Charismatic, a 104 Beyer Speed Figure, far and away his best in a five-race career that included third-place finishes at 2 in the Grade 1 Champagne and Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"A lot of people think, off his last race, he's good enough right now to win a much richer and important race," said Zito, who trains Sun King for owner Tracy Farmer. "Naturally we could have waited another couple of weeks and run him in the $1 million Florida Derby. But I'm not looking for money right now. At the moment I'm only interested in the development of the horse.

"He ran faster than I would have liked the first time back," Zito said, "so I don't want a tough race for his second start. That's one reason I chose to come to Tampa. The second is that the timing of the race is perfect because it gives us four weeks until the Blue Grass, which will be his final prep before the Kentucky Derby."

Sun King figures to go off an overwhelming favorite, perhaps as low as 1-10, in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby. But despite Sun King's obvious class advantage over seven seemingly overmatched rivals, Zito is not taking victory for granted.

"The racetrack at Tampa is very safe, which I like, but it's also a little different than most so you never know what can happen," said Zito. "I took The Cliff's Edge there last year, and he got beat but then came back to win the Blue Grass."

Edgar Prado, Sun King's regular rider, will have the assignment again.

, fourth in Gulfstream's Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes, leads the opposition in a group completed by Global Traitor, Mighty Mecke, Nicando, Coyotehighestcall, Forever Wild, and Medigating.

In the Florida Oaks, trainer Richard Dutrow Jr.'s last-minute decision not to enter Sis City, who would have been an odds-on favorite, helped swell the field to nine 3-year-old fillies. The entrants include Toll Taker, who was supplemented into the race by trainer Tim Hills.

Toll Taker was also a supplementary entry when she captured the Suncoast Stakes, Tampa's traditional prep for the Oaks, by 1 3/4 lengths on Feb. 26. Gotta Rush, runner-up in the Suncoast, will have an opportunity to avenge that setback in an Oaks field that also includes Even Again, K.D.'s Shady Lady, Atlas Valley, Eastern Lily, Leona's Knight, R. Lady Joy, and Little Lucifer.

Even Again, an impressive maiden winner at Gulfstream in her 3-year-old debut on Jan. 27, will likely vie with Toll Taker for favoritism in the Oaks.