04/11/2004 11:00PM

Three weeks and counting

The Cliff's Edge salvages the spring for trainer Nick Zito with a victory in the Blue Grass Stakes, securing a Kentucky Derby start.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Three days before the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, a weary Nick Zito stood outside his barn at Keeneland Race Course, eyes downcast, and said, "I can't wait for May 2."

By Saturday night, though, Zito again had May 1 circled on his calendar. The victory by The Cliff's Edge in the Blue Grass ended a miserable spring for Zito and put him on course for the 130th Kentucky Derby on May 1 at Churchill Downs.

"It's very, very humbling," Zito said Saturday night back at his barn. "I just hope we have three more good weeks."

Those three weeks will be filled with intrigue. With the Derby drawing ever closer, it appears likely that more than 20 horses will enter the race. If that happens, the field will be determined by earnings in graded stakes races. The last time 20 horses entered the Derby was in 2002. Because of late scratches, only 18 ran that year. The last time 20 horses ran in the Derby was 1984.

Smarty Jones, Tapit, and The Cliff's Edge - who won the three biggest prep races last Saturday - assured themselves of starting berths. But there will be plenty of anxiety in the next fortnight among the connections of those still on the outside looking in, such as Eddington and Rock Hard Ten; they will need defections from those above them. Colts such as St Averil and Value Plus would seem the most likely to defect from the main body of the race.

The earnings list could be complicated further this Saturday, when Derby prospects such as Fire Slam, Quintons Gold Rush, Saratoga County, and Song of the Sword compete in the Grade 2, $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. The Lexington also will include Boomzeboom and Pomeroy, a pair of California-based runners who are scheduled to fly to Kentucky on Wednesday.

There is one more graded stakes preceding the Derby, the April 24 Derby Trial at Churchill Downs, but no Derby candidates are likely for that race.

The other fascinating back story will involve jockeys. Several top riders - such as Victor Espinoza, Javier Santiago, and Alex Solis - have been riding more than one likely Derby runner, and will have to commit. Espinoza did so on Monday; his agent, Tony Matos, said Espinoza would ride the Arkansas Derby runner-up, Borrego, for trainer Beau Greely instead of Kristin Mulhall-trained Imperialism, who was placed second in the Santa Anita Derby when Rock Hard Ten was disqualified.

"It was a very hard decision," Matos said. "Both trainers are very good clients. Victor left it up to me."

Kent Desormeaux will replace Espinoza on Imperialism, Mulhall said Monday.

The Cliff's Edge got the weekend's best Beyer Speed Figure, a 111 for his victory in the Blue Grass. It was tonic for Zito, who had to pull Eurosilver and then Birdstone out of the Blue Grass.

"Cliff just hung around," Zito said. "He never runs a bad race. And he's already won twice at Churchill Downs."

Zito said Birdstone would be trained up to the Derby.

Lion Heart, who was second in the Blue Grass, and third-place Limehouse also are heading to the Derby. Mustanfar is possible, but his graded stakes earnings make him questionable. Action This Day, who was sixth, and Preachinatthebar, who was seventh, are going to continue to the Derby.

"We're going to watch how things develop," said Richard Mandella, the trainer of Action This Day. "We're not off the trail."

Mandella entered Minister Eric in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Keeneland on Wednesday instead of the Lexington. Minister Eric has plenty of graded stakes earnings, most gleaned from last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, so that was not a concern.

"Because he had surgery in November, I've tried to bring him along as fast as I can and as easy as I can, and still have him ready for the Derby," Mandella said Monday. "I didn't want to run him in a hard race. Let's face it - if he can't win that race and show something, he doesn't belong anyway."

Smarty Jones ran his record to 6 for 6 with his victory in the Arkansas Derby. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 107. More importantly, he put himself in position to claim a $5 million bonus, offered this year by Oaklawn Park, to a horse who can sweep the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby.

"What can you say? He was awesome. He was awesome," said trainer John Servis, who said Smarty Jones came out of the race "super."

The question all spring regarding Smarty Jones has been his ability to get a distance of ground, but he has now stretched out successfully to 1 1/8 miles. Can he handle the Derby's 1 1/4 miles? "Let's hope they'll be asking, 'Do you think he'll get a mile and a half?' " Servis said, referring to the distance of the Belmont Stakes.

Pro Prado, who finished third in the Arkansas Derby, is also pointing for the Derby. He, however, is currently just below the cutoff in terms of graded stakes earnings.

"We realize we're going to be a long price, but maybe we've been chasing the best 3-year-old in the country," said Bob Holthus, who trains Pro Prado.

Tapit got a 98 Beyer Figure for his victory in the Wood Memorial, which saw the first three finishers separated by just a half-length. Both Tapit and The Cliff's Edge had made their last start in the Florida Derby, which was won by Friends Lake.

Master David and Eddington, who were second and third in the Wood, are also pointing for the Derby. Eddington lost second by a nose, and the $75,000 difference could prove costly, as right now he is out of the top 20.

Derby runners are beginning to gather at Churchill Downs. Borrego and Pro Prado arrived there Monday. Master David was scheduled to arrive on Tuesday. And Smarty Jones was scheduled to be sent by van on Wednesday.

Derby dreams ended on Saturday for several prospects. Sinister G, the winner of the Lane's End Stakes, was pulled from consideration after finishing 10th in the Wood Memorial. He had more than enough money in terms of graded stakes earnings, but his performance Saturday was subpar.

"His Derby went up in smoke in the Wood," said his trainer, John Toscano III. Toscano later joked with Mark Hennig, the trainer of bubble horse Eddington, "You can have my spot if I can sell it to you."

Swingforthefences, who was fourth in the Wood, and Tiger Hunt, who ran poorly in the Northern Spur Stakes at Oaklawn Park, also are out of the Derby.

- additional reporting by David Grening, Marty McGee, and Mary Rampellini