03/23/2006 1:00AM

Lane's End anybody's race

Superfly, one of two horses from Nick Zito's barn in the Grade 2 Lane's End Stakes, has yet to fulfill the potential he displayed at 2.

FLORENCE, Ky. - As if the road to the Kentucky Derby needed any more variables.

Not only will the 35th be the first Derby prep run on Polytrack, but the likely favorite, Strong Contender, was excluded from a 12-horse field, giving the Grade 2 race a look so jumbled that even seasoned handicappers are scratching their heads.

"Now who's the favorite?" said Turfway oddsmaker Mike Battaglia. "I have no clue."

Battaglia said he had planned to make Strong Contender a solid 2-1 choice, but when a lack of sufficient earnings left the colt out, "there really was no favorite," he said.

Yet the show must go on at Turfway. With or without an obvious horse to beat, the $500,000 Lane's End provides the opportunity for any of 12 horses to make a quantum leap from Derby unknown to Derby contender.

"We think our two horses will make a good showing," said Nick Zito assistant Tim Poole. "This is a very good chance to get things going in the right direction."

Zito will be represented by Superfly (post 3) and Hemingway's Key (post 8), both of whom showed solid potential at 2 but have yet to make sufficient progress at 3. As for tactics, Superfly figures to be in close attendance to the early pace, while Hemingway's Key probably will have to come from farther back. Hemingway's Key will add blinkers for this race.

The pace in the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End seems likely to be honest at worst and rapid at best, with Starspangled Gator (post 4), Sharp Attack (post 6), Laity (post 9), and Silent Times (post 12) all owning effective early speed.

With his far outside post, Silent Times will be getting an instant litmus test. As the first foreigner to join the Derby trail this year, the Irish-bred, English-based Silent Times clearly is the most intriguing horse in the field.

"We should find out right away how well he matches up," said trainer Eoghan O'Neill, a former assistant to John Gosden in England.

Laity is the leading earner in the field, with victories in the Cradle Stakes and the John Battaglia Memorial - both ungraded races - accounting for most of his $213,200 bankroll. Trainer Frank Brothers vacillated this week about whether to run Laity in the Lane's End or another Saturday race, the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes, but the graded earnings available in the Lane's End ultimately led him that way. Graded earnings are the criteria used to determine which horses get into the Kentucky Derby field if more than 20 enter.

One of the many Lane's End sleepers is Tahoe Warrior (post 5), whose trainer, Todd Pletcher, won the Lane's End in 2001 with Balto Star and last year with Flower Alley. Tahoe Warrior began his career struggling mightily on dirt but began faring better in late November, when Pletcher began spotting him on grass.

Other fringe contenders include Sharp Attack, who has a 2 for 2 record on the Turfway Polytrack, and More Than Regal (post 10), a winner of his last two starts.

The rest of the field is Malameeze (post 1), With a City (post 2), Seaside Retreat (post 7), and Pair of Kings (post 11).

The Lane's End and Rushaway will be televised live on ESPN2 on a one-hour broadcast that begins at 5 p.m. Eastern. Post time for the Lane's End is 5:45. The weather forecast calls for a slight chance of rain and a high of 46.

General admission Saturday is $10. Turfway expects its usual year-high crowd of about 18,000. First post is 1:10.

1Malameeze J. McKee20-1
2 With a City B. Blanc 30-1
3 SuperflyJ. Rose7-2
4 Starspangled GatorC. Woods Jr. 30-1
5 Tahoe Warrior C. DeCarlo 9-2
6 Sharp AttackJ. Garcia15-1
7Seaside RetreatP. Husbands12-1
8Hemingway's KeyE. Prado 4-1
9 LaityC. Lanerie 4-1
10More Than RegalD. Flores 15-1
11Pair of KingsR. Bracho 20-1
12Silent Times (Ire) R. Albarado 5-1