05/02/2005 12:00AM

One rider, three Derby contenders

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Will Wolford (right), a horse owner and former Pittsburgh Steeler, gives trainer Tim Ritchey a game ball on Monday at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Nobody was under more pressure at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning than exercise rider Maxine Correa, who was entrusted with the task of working three of trainer Nick Zito's Kentucky Derby hopefuls, including likely favorite Bellamy Road. High Fly, Noble Causeway, and Bellamy Road all completed their works without incident and almost exactly as Zito had mapped them out.

"There's a lot of pressure involved in this type of situation, but I try not to let it get to me," said Correa, whose husband, Carlos, also plays a major role in the success of Zito's barn. "I just try to treat these like normal works, even though they are not."

Correa gallops High Fly on a regular basis, while Carlos gets on Bellamy Road, Noble Causeway, and Sun King each morning.

"I try to treat all the horses the same, although probably in the back of my mind High Fly is my favorite, because he's the one I get on every day," said Correa. "But when it's time to work, I try to get the best I can out of every horse."

Bellamy Road is generally regarded as Zito's leading Derby candidate, and he did nothing to discourage that rating when he worked an explosive five furlongs in 1:00.42 on Sunday before galloping out very strongly around the turn.

"Bellamy Road is a freaky horse," said Correa. "He just eats up the ground, especially around the turns. He has such an amazing stride - it feels like you're just sitting back water skiing when you're riding him.

"Carlos does all the hard work," she added. "He's the one who gallops him every morning."

Noble Causeway came out immediately after Bellamy Road and was also impressive, working five furlongs in a brisk 59.91 seconds in company with Capac. Correa had about an hour to relax before jumping aboard High Fly immediately after the renovation break. She was forced to improvise a bit when High Fly unexpectedly ran up on another worker inside the eighth pole.

"I wasn't worried about it," said Correa.

"I thought it was kind of cool we had another horse outside of us, because it gave him something to focus on to keep him going after he went by his workmate. He's such a neat, compact little horse. He just coils himself up and is such a fighter. He gives his ultimate right to the end."

Zito was quick to praise Correa for her efforts, especially aboard Bellamy Road.

"I thought Maxine did a great job," said Zito. "It was a good thing she worked him the way she did. You could see he was even all the way around, finished up good, and looked very relaxed doing it."

Quick returns for Bandini, Flower Alley

Trainer Todd Pletcher usually gives his horses a day off after a workout, but he decided to send both Bandini and Flower Alley back to the track on Monday morning to jog and school in the paddock following workouts on Sunday.

"I can see if they are moving good and see their energy level better if they are on the racetrack rather than walking around the shed," Pletcher said outside his Churchill Downs barn.

Bandini, who gets much of his feistiness from his sire, Fusaichi Pegasus, will have several visits to the paddock this week, Pletcher said.

"I'm going to school all my horses, but Bandini a little more than the others," he said.

Pletcher and Zito will sit alone

Pletcher has three horses in the Derby. Nick Zito has five. Both trainers said they don't want to play favorites with their horses or their respective owners, so instead of sitting with one of their owners for the Derby, both said they would sit by themselves.

"I don't sit with my owners for almost any race, much less the Derby," Pletcher said.

"I'm definitely going to sit by myself," Zito said.

Having five Derby horses for five different owners is an unprecedented feat.

"These owners really deserve all the credit in the world," Zito said. "You can see how smooth it's been going. There hasn't been a bump in the road. I don't see this happening again - five horses for five different clients. It's quite an accomplishment."

Shades of 2002 for Baffert

With the longshot Sort It Out as his lone Derby representative this year, trainer Bob Baffert has not been overwhelmed with media requests, unlike the years he has brought favorites such as General Challenge, Indian Charlie, and Point Given to the race.

Instead, Baffert said this week has reminded him of 2002, the year he won his third Derby with the longshot War Emblem.

"It was pretty quiet that year," Baffert said. "It's more fun when you've got a longshot. There's less stress on you - your owners enjoy it more. Sometimes there's too much pressure. The Derby's a great race. You've got to enjoy it."

Baffert said his most disappointing Derby was in 2001 with Point Given, who finished fifth as the favorite but rebounded to capture both the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.

"He'd only had two starts that year going into the Derby," Baffert said. "We hadn't figured out his style yet. When he won the Belmont, I was mad," he said, referring to the fact that the Derby loss had cost Point Given a sweep of the Triple Crown.

Wolford and Ritchey huddle up

Like almost anyone who grew up in Pittsburgh, Tim Ritchey has been a big fan of the NFL's Steelers since he can remember. So it was a big thrill for Ritchey when former Steeler Will Wolford paid him a visit on the Churchill backstretch Monday morning.

Wolford, a longtime horse owner and racing fan, presented Ritchey with several Steeler mementos, including a game ball that Wolford earned for his play in a game against the Indianapolis Colts in 1997.

"We came from behind to win that game, just like I see Afleet Alex coming from behind to win the Derby on Saturday," Wolford told Ritchey.

Ritchey, who will saddle Afleet Alex as one of the Derby favorites, said he was "very honored" to meet a former player from the team he still follows closely.

Wolford was an All-Pro offensive lineman who played for Buffalo and Indianapolis before ending his 13-year career with Pittsburgh in 1999. He lives in his native Louisville and owns several horses, including Honor in War, winner of the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic in 2003.

Closing Argument closes out major prep work

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he was pleased with Closing Argument's final major Derby prep here Monday. Closing Argument, winner of the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes and third in the Grade 1 Blue Grass, went five furlongs in 1:01.54 under exercise rider Danny Wright.

"I thought he worked very well," said McLaughlin, who will be saddling his first Kentucky Derby starter on Saturday. "He was a little keen early, but he got a lot out of it and was not blowing when he came back to the barn. He's ready."

- additional reporting by Marty McGee and Jay Privman