02/19/2010 12:00AM

Jackson Bend no small talent

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The big horse in trainer Nick Zito's barn is, point of fact, not very big. In terms of accomplishments, Jackson Bend ranks among the best 3-year-olds in the country, with 5 wins and 2 second-place finishes in 7 starts. In terms of physical stature, though, Jackson Bend won't be mistaken for a nightclub bouncer.

Has Zito ever weighed him?

"I'm afraid to," he cracked Thursday morning as Jackson Bend walked around Zito's barn at the Palm Meadows training center.

Zito is not afraid to run Jackson Bend against the best, though. On Saturday at Gulfstream Park, Jackson Bend will take on Remsen winner Buddy's Saint and the well-regarded Eskendereya in the Grade 2, $250,000 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes, the major prep for next month's Florida Derby.

The 1 1/8-mile Fountain of Youth is the main event on an 11-race Gulfstream card that features three other graded stakes, including the Grade 2, $150,000 Hutcheson Stakes at seven furlongs, also for 3-year-olds. And those two stakes are part of a sensory overload Saturday of Derby preps around the country, including the Grade 2, $300,000 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds, the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, the Grade 3, $150,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate, and the $50,000 Turf Paradise Derby.

The Fountain of Youth drew a field of 10. Jackson Bend and Buddy's Saint figure to vie for favoritism, but Jackson Bend holds the edge both on recency and a race over the track. Last month, in his first start since Zito took over as his trainer following a private sale, Jackson Bend finished second in the one-mile Holy Bull Stakes to Winslow Homer, who came out of the race with an injury. Despite racing wide while part of a contested pace, Jackson Bend held on well for second, beaten three-quarters of a length while 3 1/4 lengths in front of the rest of the field.

"He had three different horses challenge him," Zito said. "They were worried about Mighty Mouse. He's a courageous little horse."

Jackson Bend won his lone start around two turns, going 1 1/16 miles in the In Reality Stakes at Calder in October, his final start as a 2-year-old.

Buddy's Saint, who drew post 2, three spots inside of Jackson Bend, is making his first start since Nov. 28, when he won the Remsen, a two-turn, 1 1/8-mile race like the Fountain of Youth. His three starts last year were all in New York.

Eskendereya should get plenty of support based on his victory in a one-mile first-level allowance race here on Jan. 7. He has finished first or second in 3 of 4 races, the lone blemish his only start on a synthetic surface, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"He's a nice horse," said Todd Pletcher, who trains Eskendereya. "He won going a mile, but a mile and an eighth is what he's really dying for. This is a little bit of a class test. The Breeders' Cup is a throw-out. Everything else he's done has been very genuine."

Pletcher also will send out Aikenite, who was sixth of nine in the Holy Bull.

"We believe he was too close to the pace last time and will benefit from settling and then making one run," Pletcher said.

Like Pletcher, Zito also has two runners. Ice Box, who has won two straight, landed the outside post. Early Thursday morning Zito thought he would scratch Ice Box, but later in the day was leaning toward running.

"He needs graded earnings," Zito said.

Pulsion is making his first start since a rough trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, finishing 11th of 13. Before that, though, he was second to champion Lookin At Lucky in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.

"He's coming. He's maturing. He's not a man yet," said Patrick Biancone, who trains Pulsion. "Saturday night, we should have a good idea where we are."

Lost Aptitude is trying the main track for the first time after six starts on grass. If he can make the transition, he can be a factor. He has won 3 of 5 around two turns. In his last start, he finished second in the Tropical Park Derby at Calder.

Pleasant Prince was fifth behind Eskendereya in an allowance race on Jan. 7, then second to Ice Box on Jan. 18.

Positive Split finished third behind Ice Box and Pleasant Prince on Jan. 18 in his first start on a dirt surface.

Prince Will I Am was second to Drosselmeyer in a first-level allowance on Jan. 31 after beating just one horse when facing Eskendereya on Jan. 7.