03/19/2005 12:00AM

Sun King wire to wire Gets his prep for Blue Grass

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Tom Cooley
Sun King, after turning back challenges from the inside and outside, pulls away to a 3 1/4-length victory in the Tampa Bay Derby.

TAMPA, Fla. - Mission accomplished.

Trainer Nick Zito was hoping to use Saturday's $250,000 as a stepping-stone to bigger and better things for his top Kentucky Derby prospect, Sun King. Zito got exactly what he was looking for, a very professional 3 1/4-length victory over Forever Wild and five other overmatched 3-year-olds in Tampa Bay Downs' marquee race.

The Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby was the highlight of Saturday's Festival Day program, which included the Florida Oaks and Grade 3 Hillsborough Stakes.

Breaking from the rail under regular rider Edgar Prado, Sun King surprisingly went right to the lead and set modest fractions of 23.79 and 48.65 seconds over a fast but very cuppy track. Racing just off the rail, Sun King was challenged on the inside by Medigating and from the outside by Forever Wild approaching the quarter pole but asserted his superiority when urged by Prado in early stretch. He gradually pulled away in the final furlong while kept under mild urging to the end.

Forever Wild was easily second-best, finishing 3 1/4 lengths ahead of Global Trader. Medigating, Criminal Mind, Coyoteshighestcall, and the slow-starting Nicandro rounded out the order of finish.

Sun King paid $2.10 as the overwhelming favorite and was also responsible for a minus show pool of $176,884. His final time of 1:43.98 for 1 1/16 miles was .54 seconds off the track record.

"Everything went great. I'm very happy," said Zito, who trains Sun King for Tracy Farmer. "I was surprised like everyone else that he went to the lead, but that's okay. He's a very versatile horse. I think Edgar wanted to school him a little bit when he let those two come up to him on the turn to see just how much horse he's got.

"I didn't want to overdo it today, and this should set him up well for the Blue Grass."

The Toyota Blue Grass will be run at Keeneland on April 16.

"He's a special horse," said Zito, "I just hope the next two months are good to him."

The all-sources handle on the Tampa Bay Derby of $874,864 was a record for the race.