03/22/2007 12:00AM

Lane's End strategy - send or sit back?

Matt Wooley/Horsephotos
Hard Spun, galloping Thursday under Gina Suiter, may have to rate if Forefathers sets a fast pace.

FLORENCE, Ky. - There seems little harm in using the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes as a testing ground of sorts. In fact, when 12 promising but relatively unproven 3-year-olds clash Saturday over Polytrack in the 36th running of the Turfway Park showcase, the results will go a long way in determining which way Nick Zito heads with Forefathers - and, for that matter, whether every other trainer with a Lane's End starter will endeavor to stay on the Kentucky Derby trail.

"When you're in this kind of position, it's really not that big a deal," said Zito. "If things don't pan out, you can always regroup because there are a lot of other nice races the rest of the year besides the Triple Crown."

Nonetheless, Zito would like nothing more than to hurtle down a path toward the Derby, which is where the winner of the Grade 2 Lane's End invariably heads. Although the field as a whole does not appear particularly strong, the race typically produces a bona-fide Derby contender, and veteran trainers such as Zito and Larry Jones are hoping to find themselves in just such a position Saturday night.

Jones is the trainer of Hard Spun, the morning-line favorite and most accomplished runner in the Lane's End. As the winner of four straight races to open his career, Hard Spun will be trying to rebound off his first career defeat, a fourth-place finish in the Feb. 19 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

"He didn't run bad at all in the Southwest, although we were disappointed he got beat for the first time," said Jones. "We expect him to run a lot better by moving to the Polytrack. He's given us every indication he likes the surface. Obviously this is a very big test for us, just as I'm sure it is for all the other horses."

Hard Spun has tended to show big speed when at his peak, but whether he can - or whether his jockey, Mario Pino, wants to - keep pace through the early stages with Forefathers and jockey Julien Leparoux is a huge strategic subtext going into the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End. Asked whether Forefathers, who exits a series of rapidly run sprints, will simply run off, even if it proves to be his undoing in the stretch run, Zito shouted: "I sure hope he runs off! I hope he runs off and says, 'See ya later!' "

More seriously, he added: "There is some other speed in there, but it's hard to know how good it is. I guess Julien is just going to have to place him forwardly and go from there. I just want him to get away from there nice."

In his last race, the March 3 Hutcheson, Forefathers broke slowly to lose virtually all chance.

Said Zito: "I will let everybody in on this: This horse trained unbelievable over the Polytrack at Keeneland when we had him there last fall."

The Lane's End, like every other major Derby prep this year, is being run with trainer Todd Pletcher casting his lengthy shadow. Pletcher already has several major contenders for the 133rd Derby on May 5, and with Bullara and Twilight Meteor, he will be attempting to bolster that roster. Bullara is entered off an eight-length allowance romp at Gulfstream Park, and Twilight Meteor is a two-time stakes winner on grass.

Fringe players in the Lane's End cast include Sports Town, in from New York for John Terranova; Joe Got Even, who already has 2 wins and 2 seconds over the Turfway Polytrack; and Sedgefield, a Smart Strike colt who progressed steadily over turf in south Florida after a sharp maiden victory here in early December for Darrin Miller.

The rest of the field is Highest Degree, Starbase, Approval Rating, Helios, and For You Reppo.

The Lane's End, the 10th of 12 Saturday races at Turfway, will be televised live on ESPN on a one-hour broadcast that begins at 5 p.m. Eastern, with post time scheduled for 5:45. The $100,000 Rushaway Stakes, which directly precedes the Lane's End and also is part of the ESPN telecast, is one of four other stakes on the card.

The weather forecast for Saturday calls for a possibility for thundershowers and a high temperature of 74. Polytrack was manufactured to be impervious to precipitation in non-freezing weather, and therefore rain should theoretically have little to no effect on the outcome.