03/22/2005 12:00AM

A sleeper? Not for long


LAS VEGAS - With five live contenders for the Kentucky Derby, Nick Zito is the envy of every trainer in America. Sun King, High Fly, and Bellamy Road are the most accomplished runners of the group and Noble Causeway is developing quickly, but Andromeda's Hero may be better than all of them and is poised for a breakthrough performance in Saturday's Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park.

In a topsy-turvy year, with the 3-year-old picture changing weekly, few have Andromeda's Hero among their top 20 Derby contenders. Third in his 2-year-old debut last October at about seven furlongs at Keeneland, Andromeda's Hero made an explosive move to score a seven-length victory in his second start Dec. 26 at Calder. He then finished fourth but was moved up to third via disqualification in a seven-furlong Gulfstream allowance.

In the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay, Andromeda's Hero drew the disadvantageous outside post in a field of 12. At the Davis distance, 1 1/16 miles, races nearly begin on the turn. Bumped and forced wide on the first turn, Andromeda's Hero weaved his way between horses to steadily improve his position and, once clear in the stretch, unleashed a powerful move to sweep past the leader and win by more than two lengths. While his competition was dubious, the performance nevertheless showed that Andromeda's Hero could overcome adversity, and he was crying to run around the track again.

The Lane's End on Saturday could be Andromeda's Hero's coming-out party. He is from the first crop of Fusaichi Pegasus - also the sire of Bandini, Roman Ruler, and Fusaichi Samurai - and there isn't a 3-year-old with a better pedigree for 1 1/4 miles. Andromeda's Hero descends from a remarkable King Ranch female family that traces in tail-female family to Masda, a full sister to Man o' War. Andromeda's Hero's first dam, Marozia (by Storm Bird), was a modest racehorse, but his second dam, Make Change (Roberto), was one of the best fillies of her generation, which included Winning Colors, Goodbye Halo, and Maplejinsky. His third dam, Equal Change (Arts and Letters), ran a strong second to Ruffian in the 1975 Coaching Club American Oaks at 1 1/2 miles. His fourth dam, Fairness (Cavan), is a half-sister to Prove Out, who gave Secretariat a thumping in the 1973 Woodward Stakes, and his fifth dam, Equal Venture, is a full sister to 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault.

Under the radar so far, Andromeda's Hero could be on everyone's top 20 Derby list after Saturday.

Here is a look at the four other Derby contenders in Zito's barn:

* Sun King basically had a public workout winning the Tampa Bay Derby last weekend against overmatched rivals. Although his sire, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic, was devoid of early speed, Sun King inherits a great deal of speed from a quartet of brilliant influences on his dam's side: Jolie's Halo, Copelan, Crozier, and Swaps. Thus, Sun King gets stamina on top and tactical speed from the bottom of his pedigree. He should have no problem getting 1 1/4 miles.

* Fountain of Youth Stakes winner High Fly is a front-runner who gets his speed from Atticus, former world-record holder for one mile on the turf. High Fly's dam, Verbasle (Slewpy), was not a stakes winner but placed in multiple stakes, including the Matron, Nijana, and Boiling Springs. His second dam, Verbality, and third dam, One Sum, were stakes winners, and One Sum is a half-sister to Summing, the 1981 Belmont Stakes winner. High Fly obviously has high quality, but his brilliance may be diminished by both the distance of the Kentucky Derby and the prospect of so much speed this year, including top 3-year-olds such as High Limit, Rockport Harbor, Going Wild, Bellamy Road, Uncle Denny, and Spanish Chestnut.

* Winner of the Cradle Stakes last year for Michael Dickinson, Bellamy Road won his first start for Zito in a one-mile Gulfstream Park allowance by 15 3/4 lengths. Bellamy Road is by the underrated Concerto, a stakes-winning son of Chief's Crown, and is from a classy female family that produced numerous stakes winners, including Out of Place, Versailles Treaty, General Assembly, and Chief Honcho. Once again, however, he appears to be a colt who wants to be on the lead.

* Noble Causeway won his last two races, a maiden and an allowance, both at 1 1/16 miles, and will be tested for class in the Florida Derby. Noble Causeway is from the promising first crop of Giant's Causeway, the sire of last year's European juvenile champion, Shamardal, who runs in Saturday's UAE Derby on the Dubai World Cup undercard. Noble Causeway's third dam is the unraced Trestle, who produced five stakes winners, including Classy Cathy, who is Noble Causeway's fourth dam. Trestle is a half-sister to Edge, the dam of Boundary. The Giant's Causeway-Seeking the Gold cross along with the class of his female family suggests Noble Causeway should be dangerous at 1 1/4 miles.