08/29/2004 11:00PM

Shooting for Horse of the Year

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As a storm hits Saratoga, Birdstone wins the Travers.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Historically, when a horse wins the first two legs of the Triple Crown - as Smarty Jones did in May - he is a virtual lock for the Eclipse Award as the nation's top 3-year-old and a leading contender for Horse of the Year.

One has to go back to 1969 to find the last time that didn't happen. That year, Majestic Prince won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but was beaten out for the divisional championship by Arts and Letters, who won the Belmont, Jim Dandy, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Although retired, Smarty Jones remains the leader in the 3-year-old division. But Birdstone - who handed Smarty Jones his only defeat in the Belmont Stakes - gave himself a chance to unseat the leader by winning Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

will try to make his case for a championship when he runs next in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Lone Star Park on Oct. 30. On Sunday morning, his connections confirmed that the Classic would be Birdstone's next target.

The 3-year-old division lost one of its more accomplished runners when Lion Heart suffered a broken bone in his right front foot while finishing last in the Travers and was retired.

Trainer Nick Zito, who won his first Travers with his 12th starter, said he would gladly run Birdstone in either the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont on Oct. 2 or the Breeders' Cup Classic, whichever race owner Marylou Whitney preferred. Whitney, who owns and bred Birdstone with her husband, John Hendrickson, left little doubt where she wanted to run.

"We're hoping to go to the Breeders' Cup," Whitney said. "We have our reservations and we're all set to go. It's up to the horse."

Birdstone would have nine weeks between the Travers and the Breeders' Cup. Since he won the Travers off a 12-week layoff, getting to Texas shouldn't be a problem. In winning his first Travers, Zito was rewarded for his belief that the best chance Birdstone had to win the race was not to run in a prep race beforehand. That included an allowance race written for Birdstone that filled here on July 28.

"Horse trainers take a lot of heat," Zito said. "Once in a while you get an accolade and you get rewarded for doing things you think are right. I've been around a long, long time. I've been doing this every single day, and we got rewarded. More importantly, Birdstone got rewarded."

A victory in the Breeders' Cup would be significant for Birdstone because, most likely, he would face many of the top older horses in the country, such as defending Classic winner Pleasantly Perfect, Ghostzapper, and Roses in May. In the last four years, Tiznow (2000) is the only 3-year-old to defeat older horses in the Classic. Tiznow, who did not participate in that year's Triple Crown, won Eclipse Awards for top 3-year-old and for Horse of the Year.

Zito believes Birdstone can win a championship as well.

"If he's first or second he'd have a legitimate shot now," Zito said. "Smarty brought everything to the table - he was undefeated - but this is a good horse too."

Unlike the Belmont, when Whitney, Zito, and jockey Edgar Prado apologized for ruining the Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones, there was a wild celebration after the Travers. A heavy rainstorm, complete with dark clouds, thunder, and lightning, roared down on Birdstone and his connections in the winner's circle. But no one seemed to care. Zito said he felt like Gene Kelly in the movie "Singin' in the Rain."

Walking through the dampened crowd afterward, Whitney received high-fives and whistles from the local faithful, who braved the elements. Later, when her entourage dined at the popular restaurant The Wishing Well, Whitney received a standing ovation from the other patrons.

"I'm a Saratogian," Whitney said Sunday. "I love Saratoga. I do a lot of things in Saratoga for people and they were reaching out to me last night."

Zito also saddled Travers runner-up The Cliff's Edge and fifth-place finisher Sir Shackleton. The Cliff's Edge ran second for the third straight race since coming back from a bruised foot. Zito said The Cliff's Edge came out of the race okay, though, he said, "his feet were stinging him a little bit." Zito will point The Cliff's Edge to the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Zito said that Sir Shackleton, the West Virginia Derby winner, bled. His future plans were undecided.

Eddington finished third in the Travers, just as he had in the Jim Dandy. Trainer Mark Hennig called it, "Probably his best race ever." Hennig mentioned the Grade 2, $500,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs on Sept. 25 as a possible next start.

Purge, the Jim Dandy winner, came out of his fourth-place finish with a bruised front foot. Pletcher said it was nothing major, and he had no set plans for Purge.