03/15/2006 1:00AM

Prado holds hot Derby hand

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Bill Denver / EQUI-PHOTOS
Jockey Edgar Prado has first call on four major Kentucky Derby candidates.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Jockey Edgar Prado isn't riding every leading Kentucky Derby candidate in upcoming prep races over the next several weeks. But he is holding as good a hand as any at the moment, one that includes such aces as two-time Grade 1 winner First Samurai and the undefeated trio of Keyed Entry, Barbaro, and Strong Contender.

Prado was out early at Gulfstream Park on Wednesday to work Strong Contender for trainer John Ward. The son of Maria's Mon worked five furlongs in 59.80 seconds in his final major prep for the Grade 2 Lane's End at Turfway Park on March 25.

"He went super this morning," Prado said before going out to ride the first of seven mounts on Wednesday's card. "I'm very happy with him. He can be a bit of a handful in the morning. He likes to play around a little bit, but once you get his mind on business, he's all business."

Prado rode Strong Contender for the first time last month, guiding the impressive-looking colt to an easy entry-level allowance win at a mile at Gulfstream. The Lane's End is Strong Contender's stakes debut and his first start around two turns.

"He's a very nice horse - very professional," said Prado. "He ran a super race last time, and I think there's still room for improvement. So far he's on the right path."

Prado picked up the mount on Keyed Entry this weekend in the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct after John Velazquez opted to keep his regular seat aboard Bluegrass Cat that same afternoon in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby.

"I've never been on Keyed Entry, but I have chased him with First Samurai in the Hutcheson," said Prado. "And how can I not have confidence in his chances this weekend? The Hutcheson was such a good race. He set a track record and beat a very good horse in the process. And he's trained by Todd Pletcher. What more can you ask for?"

Prado will reunite with Barbaro here on April 1 for the Florida Derby and First Samurai on April 15 at Keeneland in the Blue Grass Stakes. Barbaro has not started since winning the Holy Bull on Feb. 4, while First Samurai is coming off a victory via the disqualification of Corinthian in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth.

"They've both been doing great since their last starts," said Prado. "I really think First Samurai will improve with a race under his belt around two turns. He got to goofing around a little bit in the Fountain of Youth. He didn't realize what to do when he got around that second turn. But he didn't quit when passed by that other horse, and that's definitely a plus."

Prado got off to a slow start this meet but has caught fire of late. He won five races, including the Fountain of Youth, on March 4, and four more the following Friday. His 51 winners entering Wednesday's card put him fourth in the jockey standings, just one victory behind Rafael Bejarano and Cornelio Velasquez, who were deadlocked for second place behind Velazquez.

There were several reasons for Prado's slow start, not the least of which was the death of his mother, Zenida, in Peru in late January.

"When you love someone so much and then they're not with you any more, how can you be 100 percent doing anything?" said Prado, who also made several trips to California to ride during the opening month of the session.

Prado said he plans to stay at Gulfstream Park through Florida Derby Day before moving to Kentucky for the Keeneland meet.

In the Gold to run in Shirley Jones

One filly is in, one is out, and another is on the fence for Saturday's Grade 3 Shirley Jones Handicap.

Trainer Nick Zito has confirmed that Grade 1 winner In the Gold will open her 2006 campaign in the seven-furlong Shirley Jones. In the Gold, who won three races including the Grade 1 Gazelle at 3, will carry high weight of 120 pounds.

"I'd have preferred a condition allowance race for her first start, but we couldn't get a one-mile allowance to go," said Zito. "So the Shirley Jones is the next best thing."

Trainer John Ward, on the other hand, said he is passing the Shirley Jones with For All We Know, a Grade 2 winner who finished a disappointing ninth in her 4-year-old debut in the Hurricane Bertie Handicap on Feb. 18.

"The Hurricane Bertie was a tough race on her and she's not quite ready to run back yet," he said.

Meanwhile, trainer Mike Gorham said he'll probably enter the speedster Trickle of Gold and take a look at how the race shapes up before deciding her status for the Shirley Jones.

"I don't want to run in a big field," he said. "I might just wait and see if I can get an allowance for her late in the meet or something up north."

* Necropolis became the first four-time winner of the meet, rallying to defeat That's Our Song under apprentice Josue Arce in Wednesday's third race. Necropolis is trained by Scott Lake for owner Toby Roth.