03/18/2004 12:00AM

Opportunity comes knocking

Birdstone, shown with exercise rider Maxine Correa aboard, makes his second start of the year in Saturday's $500,000 Lane's End Stakes.

FLORENCE, Ky. - The long winter odyssey that began in Florida has finally brought trainer Nick Zito to Kentucky. So far, the march toward the 130th Kentucky Derby has proceeded almost to plan for Zito, but a crucial stopping point comes Saturday at Turfway Park.

That's where Zito will saddle Birdstone for the $500,000 , the annual Turfway showcase that often serves as a key Derby prep. With Eurosilver and The Cliff's Edge already safely and satisfactorily through their latest prep races, Zito now turns his full attention to bringing Birdstone one step closer to the May 1 Derby.

"This is a very, very talented colt, very honest," Zito said. "Hopefully he'll show that to the people of Kentucky on Saturday."

Birdstone, with Jerry Bailey to ride, drew post 1 in a field of 11 3-year-olds in the Lane's End, a Grade 2 race that marks the colt's second start of the year. On the strength of his 2 1/2-length win in the Grade 1 Champagne last fall and a highly professional 3-year-old debut at Gulfstream Park, Birdstone figures as an odds-on favorite, especially with no other graded stakes winners facing him Saturday.

In fact, a big effort by Birdstone could put him head-and-head with Eurosilver at the top of many Derby rankings. With 2-year-old champion Action This Day and the highly regarded Read the Footnotes having been soundly defeated last weekend, the role of early Derby favorite is there for the taking, and Zito hopes Birdstone is eager to accommodate.

"Everybody knows that it doesn't really matter who the favorite is at this point, although I have to say that I am satisfied with where we are - so far, with the emphasis on 'so far,' " said Zito, who won the Derby in 1991 with Strike the Gold and in 1994 with Go for Gin. "You don't win the Derby in March. You do what you need to do in March. As far as Birdstone goes, he needs to run well Saturday to continue on the right path."

Assuming all goes well Saturday for Birdstone, Zito plans to run him next in the April 10 Wood Memorial and send Eurosilver to the Blue Grass Stakes and The Cliff's Edge to the Arkansas Derby the same afternoon.

With the advantage of breaking from the rail, Bailey should be able to get Birdstone in an ideal early position in the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End. How the race unfolds afterward is anyone's guess, but in view of the colt's easy comeback win last month at Gulfstream, Bailey would not mind Birdstone having to extend himself, whether that happens Saturday or in three weeks at Aqueduct in the Wood.

"Somewhere along the way, they have to have a little bit of a hard race," said Bailey, who rode Birdstone's sire, Grindstone, to win the 1996 Derby. "It's my opinion that they need to be in the fight during the course of the trip to the Kentucky Derby at least once."

If a serious fight is to come Saturday, Silver Minister may be the one to bring it. Having swept all three local preps for this race, Silver Minister will be trying to raise his Derby profile in a big way when he makes his graded stakes debut.

"If he's good enough, he's good enough," said trainer Greg Foley. "One thing we do know - he loves this racetrack."

Other fringe contenders in this 33rd running of the Lane's End include Stolen Time, Hippocrates, Little Matth Man, Sinister G, and That's an Outrage. The longshots in the field are Hasslefree, New Element, Tap Dancing Mauk, and Tricky Taboo.

The Lane's End is carded as the eighth of 12 races, with post time set for 4:15 p.m. Eastern. Four other stakes will be run here Saturday: the $100,000 Rushaway, $150,000 Bourbonette Breeders' Cup, $50,000 Hansel, and $50,000 Queen.

The Lane's End and Rushaway will be televised on a one-hour ESPN2 broadcast that begins at 3:30 p.m. Eastern. The show also will include the Gotham from Aqueduct.

Turfway officials are expecting an ontrack crowd approaching 20,000. Admission to the track is $10. First post is 12:30.

The field

Lanes End Spiral Stakes
Purse: $500,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 2

1BirdstoneJ. Bailey9-5
2That's an OutrageR. Albarado5-1
3HippocratesD. Flores30-1
4Stolen TimeC. Velasquez6-1
5Tap Dancing MaukJ. Zuniga30-1
6HasslefreeJ. Court30-1
7Silver MinisterR. Bejarano7-2
8New ElementM. Guidry 20-1
9Tricky TabooA. D'Amico30-1
10Little Matth ManP. Fragoso15-1
11Sinister GP. Toscano5-1

* All starters carry 121 pounds
* Odds by: Elliot Safdie
* Television: ESPN2 3:300-4:30 Eastern