03/19/2003 12:00AM

Lane's End signals return to big time

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Two weeks from Friday everyone involved in Kentucky racing will be acutely aware that spring has finally arrived. On that day, April 4, Keeneland begins its spring meet.

Nevertheless, the official start of spring in North America is Friday, and the northern Kentucky track that Keeneland co-owns and manages, Turfway Park, again is getting a jump on its big sister. With its signature race on Saturday, the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes, Turfway is attracting some top trainers and jockeys, a reminder to fans that big-time racing in Kentucky is imminent. Pat Day will ride Eugene's Third Son in the Lane's End for Pat Byrne, and Shane Sellers will ride Saintly Look for Dallas Stewart.

"It has been a long winter, hasn't it?" said Byrne, preparing to leave south Florida on Wednesday. "Well, we're ready to come home. I think a lot of people are looking forward to Saturday."

As with virtually all of the 3-year-olds expected to run in the Grade 2 Lane's End, Eugene's Third Son will be getting a critical test to determine whether he can proceed along the Kentucky Derby trail. In his last start, Eugene's Third Son, a lightly raced son of Indian Charlie, easily won an entry-level allowance race at Gulfstream Park, leading wire to wire under Day. The distance of that race was 1 1/8 miles, the same as the Lane's End. Eugene's Third Son's time was a pedestrian 1:53.35 over a fast track.

"I've been high on this colt for a long time," said Byrne. "Even though his time in that last race wasn't very good, Pat walked the dog the whole way," meaning Day purposely slowed the pace on the lead. "I think the colt at least deserves a little credit for winning at a mile and an eighth, after going six furlongs the race before."

Eugene's Third Son, owned by Richard Nip, typifies the Lane's End field in that he is inexperienced, having raced just three times. Among the 11 or so 3-year-olds likely to run, the only horse to win a graded race around two turns is Saintly Look, the Stewart-trained colt who captured the Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds in late January.

Byrne said Eugene's Third Son "has a lot of questions to answer Saturday" but that he believes at least one factor will be in the colt's favor: a substantial change in climate. While the weather in the Greater Cincinnati region in recent days has been unseasonably warm, with daytime temperatures exceeding 70 degrees, things are supposed to cool down this weekend. The forecast for Saturday calls for mostly cloudy skies and a high temperature of only about 58.

"It's been June-like weather down here for the last two weeks," said Byrne, who has been based at the Palm Meadows training facility in Boynton Beach, Fla. "My colt and Lion Tamer" - also shipping from Palm Meadows - "should love moving into the cooler weather. In fact, people should really watch out for any horse shipping north this time of year. Horses will be jumping out of their skins."

While Eugene's Third Son and Saintly Look figure to be the third or fourth choices, the favorite for the Lane's End surely will be Lion Tamer, with local hero Champali the second choice. John Velazquez will ride Lion Tamer, and Jason Lumpkins again has the mount on Champali.

The rest of the Lane's End field is expected to be Bim's Baby Bun, Chicken Soup Kid, Honeagle, Lots of Sizzle, New York Hero, Ozzie Cat, and Wendlar.

Entries for the Lane's End were to be drawn Thursday at a press luncheon at the Florence, Ky., track.

* Both the Rushaway and Lane's End will be televised live on ESPN2 on a one-hour broadcast that begins at 4 p.m. Eastern. Post time for the Lane's End will be about 4:40 p.m. Admission for Saturday has been raised to $10. First post is noon.

* The 1 1/16-mile Rushaway, which typically serves as a race for 3-year-olds regarded as a notch below those in the Lane's End, figures to draw a field of about seven or eight. Byrne has one of the top contenders in Private Gold.

* The $150,000 Bourbonette Breeders' Cup Stakes should be one of the best betting races on the 12-race Saturday card. Red Hot Bertie, a promising filly trained by Steve Flint, will be one of the favorites in a deep field of 3-year-old fillies. Other probables include Unbridled Femme, a romping winner of the March 1 Valdale Stakes, and Golden Marlin, winner of the Cincinnati Trophy in January.

* The other undercard stakes, both $50,000 sprints, are the Queen for older fillies and mares, and the Hansel for 3-year-olds. Timeless Love and Senorita Ziggy could be the favorites in the Queen , while Quick Draw, a recent maiden winner at Gulfstream for D. Wayne Lukas, could be the one to beat in the Hansel.

* To commemorate the 25th anniversary of his Triple Crown sweep aboard Affirmed, Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen will be honored Saturday at Turfway, where he has served as a track spokesman for about the last 10 years. Among tributes to Cauthen is a bobblehead giveaway. The first 7,000 paying customers will receive a Cauthen doll.