02/28/2005 12:00AM

One down, two to go for Sun King

Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
Sun King sparkles in an allowance win at Gulfstream Park Saturday. He is scheduled to make two more starts before the Kentucky Derby.

NEW YORK - There seems to be an effective antidote to the "two Derby prep" epidemic that is so prevalent this year, and his name is Sun King.

Sun King was very impressive winning a one-mile Saturday at Gulfstream Park in his 3-year-old debut, looping the field and running away in the stretch from as promising a prospect as Survivalist to score by nearly six lengths in a final time fast enough for him to earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 104. That figure is the highest given so far this year to a 3-year-old, anywhere in North America, at any distance.

Actually, Sun King was already an appealing candidate for the Kentucky Derby after showing considerable potential at 2. He got his first win in a strongly run maiden race at Belmont Park, beating Patriot Act, who came back to be a fine second to Consolidator in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. Sun King lost nothing in stature when he followed with a third in the Grade 1 Champagne. He was beaten less than two lengths for it all despite employing a pace-pressing running style that is contrary to his most effective way of running, which is from off the pace. Sun King concluded his 2004 campaign in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, in which he was again third, beaten only a length.

But what makes Sun King an even more attractive prospect for the Derby is the obvious advancement he has made from 2 to 3, a critical point that should not be underestimated, and the fact that his trainer, Nick Zito, has been firm about his desire for Sun King to have three prep races before he heads to Louisville.

Zito has decided that the March 19 Tampa Bay Derby will be where Sun King makes his next start, leaving the colt with time to make one more start before the Derby. This is in character for Zito, because three preps, with the last two around two turns, has become the classic approach to the Kentucky Derby. The Tampa Bay Derby is around two turns, unlike, for example, the one-turn mile of Aqueduct's Gotham, which also is scheduled for March 19.

After that, Zito has several options. Among the most appealing, he could bring Sun King back three weeks later in the April 9 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, which would leave him four weeks until the Kentucky Derby. Or, he could wait an extra week for the April 16 Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland, which would leave him three weeks until the Derby.

"What I really wish is that they had kept everything the same," Zito said, alluding to how this year the Florida Derby was moved from March to April, and how the Wood Memorial was moved from three weeks prior to the Derby to four weeks. "What I'm going to do is keep every possible option open. I owe it to my owner to do that."

Zito's three-prep approach is in stark contrast to the schedules of the five Kentucky Derby candidates who were listed in front of Sun King in last Friday's installment of this newspaper's Derby Watch. Declan's Moon, Rockport Harbor, Afleet Alex, and Wilko, are all by design in line for only two preps. That is astonishing when you consider that since Jet Pilot won the 1947 Derby off of only two previous starts at 3 the only one to do it was Sunny's Halo in 1983. Two preps wasn't the original plan for Roman Ruler, but after a quarter crack and poor weather conspired to keep him out of the San Vicente, he now has time for only two preps if he is to make it to Louisville.

"It used to be that four was the ideal number of Derby preps," Zito said in a phone interview. "But you can't run them four times before the Derby anymore. There are probably a million reasons why, but they simply don't make horses like they used to, and you just can't run them as much. I'm always looking for development. So for me, three is the ideal number of preps."

Zito has a license to know what he wants when it comes to bringing a horse up to the Derby. He has saddled 14 horses to the toughest race in America to win, and he won it twice, with Strike the Gold in 1991, and Go for Gin in 1994. The trainers of the four leading Derby contenders whose schedule all along called for only two Derby preps have started a combined two horses in the Kentucky Derby. That is certainly not meant as a knock on these men. After all, John Servis, the trainer of Rockport Harbor, won in his first trip to the Derby last year with Smarty Jones. And Ron Ellis, the trainer of Declan's Moon, came within 1 3/4 lengths of winning the 2003 Derby, and did it with a horse in Atswhatimtalknbout who didn't even start at 2. The last horse to win the Derby without having raced at 2 was Apollo 123 years ago. That is to say that experience, like a third Derby prep, has to count for something, especially when you have a horse that is good enough to win, like Zito has in Sun King.

As for colleagues who are taking the two-prep route, Zito offered an interesting perspective: "As a trainer, I may feel that two races is all

I can do with a particular horse. I had a horse like that last year in Birdstone [winner of the Belmont and Travers], who did better with a lighter schedule."

Fastest 3-year-olds

Sun KingGPFeb. 26104
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Maddalena (f)GPFeb. 5102
High FlyGPJan. 8100
Going WildSAFeb. 5100

(f) - filly