03/17/2004 1:00AM

Silver Minister takes on silver-spoon rival

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Let there be no doubt that Marylou Whitney is racing royalty. An heiress to the fortune amassed more than a century ago by the industrialist William Whitney, she long ago established a reputation for glamour and dignity.

Mrs. Whitney is now Mrs. John Hendrickson, following her May-December wedding in 1997 to the former tennis champion and Alaskan politico who oversees her racing stable and business affairs. And while she is most closely associated with boutique race meets such as Saratoga and Keeneland, she does make the occasional foray to less fashionable racetracks to watch her horses run.

Mrs. Whitney surely will be the center of attention Saturday at Turfway Park, as the owner of Birdstone, the heavy favorite in Turfway's annual showcase event, the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes. Such close scrutiny will be doubly deserved: Mrs. Whitney, for her rich legacy in racing, and Birdstone, for a 3-for-4 record that includes a win last fall in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes.

Yet the Lane's End is no one-horse race. Another nine to 11 3-year-olds, most of them also looking to use the Grade 2 Lane's End as a springboard to the 130th Kentucky Derby on May 1, were expected to be entered on Thursday against Birdstone in the 1 1/8-mile race. Foremost among the opponents is Silver Minister, a gelding whose connections admit that their rank on racing's social ladder is not quite as high as Mrs. Whitney's.

"I guess it's pretty nice for Turfway to have connections like that coming to their big race," said Greg Foley, who trains Silver Minister for Lloyd Madison Farms, a syndicate composed primarily of owners based in Madison, Wis. "But from our viewpoint, it's like running against anybody else. They just happen to have the horse to beat, that's all."

Foley, who has enjoyed a sensational last few months at Turfway and leads the trainer standings going into the final 12 programs of the winter-spring meet at the Florence, Ky., track, brings a straightforward approach to this 33rd running of the Lane's End. "I think my horse is going to run as good as he can run," said Foley. "Whether or not that's good enough, we'll have to see. But I really don't think he could be coming into this race any better."

Silver Minister, by Silver Deputy, has won his last four races, all at Turfway: a Dec. 4 maiden sprint followed by three stakes, the most recent an impressive score in the Feb. 28 John Battaglia Memorial, a 1 1/16-mile race in which Silver Minister defeated a respectable set of opponents, drawing off by 2 3/4 lengths.

"He tried some horses from out of town, a few from up East, and handled them pretty good," said Foley.

Foley finds himself in virtually the same role as last year, when he brought Champali into the Lane's End as easily the top local horse. Champali also swept all three Turfway preps before finishing third in the Lane's End, but Rob Lloyd, who manages the Lloyd Madison syndicate, believes Champali might have been limited by his pedigree.

"That's the one thing that may separate the two," said Lloyd, a Louisville businessman who grew up in Madison. "Champali is by Glitterman" - a noted speed sire - "so anything beyond a mile, we kept our fingers crossed. Silver Minister has more of a license to get the mile and an eighth. Pedigree-wise, there's less of a question."

Lloyd, 45, started putting together ownership syndicates about eight years ago. An easygoing sort who bears an uncanny facial resemblance to comedian Chris Elliott, Lloyd is well aware that the Lane's End storyline will be an obvious one if Silver Minister outruns Birdstone.

"David slays Goliath, or the blue collars beat the blue-bloods," he said. "It doesn't really matter to us. Honestly, we feel pretty good about having the second choice in a Grade 2, $500,000 race. Considering the short amount of time we've been in the sport and the level we've been playing at, especially compared to someone such as Mrs. Whitney, we feel extremely fortunate."

Rafael Bejarano, who has ridden Silver Minister in all four wins, will be aboard again Saturday. Jerry Bailey has the mount on Birdstone, who was scheduled to be flown to Kentucky from his base in south Florida on Thursday.

The rest of the Lane's End field is expected to include at least eight other shippers: Stolen Time and Tales of Glory from Florida; Hippocrates, That's an Outrage, and Hasslefree from California; Little Matth Man and Sinister G from New York; and New Element from New Orleans.

Hasslefree, 10th and last in the March 6 San Rafael Stakes in his last start, is trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who is running out of chances to make the Derby for the 23rd time in 24 years.

Several other 3-year-olds were listed Wednesday as probable starters, although some may run instead in the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes on the Saturday card. The Lane's End field will be limited to 12.

The Lane's End will be paired with the Gotham Stakes from Aqueduct on a one-hour telecast on ESPN2. The program begins at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, with the Gotham scheduled for about 3:50 and the Lane's End at 4:15.

Besides the Rushaway, Turfway's 12-race Saturday card also will include three other stakes. Bailey will ride El Prado Rob, the probable favorite in the Rushaway, and Class Above, who figures as an overwhelming favorite in the $150,000 Bourbonette Breeders' Cup for 3-year-old fillies. The other stakes, each worth $50,000, are the Queen and the Hansel.

Horsemen traveling north from warmer climates were probably in for a rude awakening Wednesday, when the high temperature near Turfway reached only 40 degrees. However, more favorable conditions were in the forecast as the week progressed, with the Saturday high forecast at 60.