02/22/2008 1:00AM

Top Derby hopeful War Pass starts year


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Tom Petty, native of Florida, knows that the waiting is the hardest part. Tell Nick Zito, current resident of Florida. After washing out on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, after an overnight race for War Pass failed to attract enough entries for it to be carded on Saturday, Zito was able to relax once the race got enough entries when brought back for Sunday at Gulfstream Park.

The waiting, the hardest part, is over. War Pass - unbeaten in four starts last year, when he was named the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male - will make his first start since his victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile nearly four months ago in a $60,000 allowance race, dubbed the Silver Series Purse, one race after the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Sunday at Gulfstream Park.

The Silver Series is clearly a means to an end for Zito. He wants War Pass to have three starts before the Kentucky Derby on May 3. Sunday's race is designed to move him along to next month's Grade 3, $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby. After that, War Pass will head to either the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5, or the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 12.

"I just want him to have a good experience coming back," Zito said. "To me, that's the most important thing. Then we can evaluate where we stand."

Right now, War Pass stands at or near the top of anyone's short list of Kentucky Derby candidates. He won his four races last year by a combined 14 1/2 lengths, including a 4 3/4-length romp in the BC Juvenile. In his last three starts, he beat Pyro, who returned two weeks ago with a dazzling victory in the Risen Star Stakes, a result that flattered War Pass.

War Pass has been in steady training this winter at the Palm Meadows training center, about 45 minutes northwest of Gulfstream Park. Other than a brief touch of colic last month, which Zito said War Pass got over quickly, War Pass has had a smooth transition from age 2 to 3.

"He looks really good," Zito said. "He's a real sight to see."

The Silver Series, at one mile, filled Zito's desire of bringing back War Pass in a one-turn race and against soft competition.

There were five other horses entered in the race. Two have won stakes, but none has even raced in a graded stakes.

War Pass's worst Beyer Speed Figure last year, an 84 earned in a debut win at Saratoga, has been equaled just one time by his five rivals in an aggregate 29 starts.