04/24/2003 12:00AM

Trial gets season off and running

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - They are connected by name and by Saturdays in springtime, but the Derby Trial and the Kentucky Derby are sharing another unmistakable link this year: the omnipotence of trainer Bobby Frankel and jockey Jerry Bailey.

Indeed, when Churchill Downs opens its spring meet, all eyes will be on the Hall of Fame tandem of Frankel and Bailey. Midas Eyes, the heavy favorite in the $150,000 Trial, will represent the Hall of Fame duo on Saturday, one week before the men endeavor to make history with heavily favored Empire Maker in the 129th running of the Derby.

As always, it is the Derby that looms largest over the opening of the Churchill meet, but there are other sources of interest to coincide with opening day. An ongoing renovation of what formerly was known as the grandstand section of the frontside is progressing in spectacular fashion, a towering reminder of the massive face-lift that still awaits the rest of this historic facility. If only because of its physical immensity, the construction will be hard to miss - both for Derby-goers and everyday horseplayers - but Churchill officials have promised that the project will have minimal, if any, adverse effects on the fans' comfort

Aside from the $121 million renovation, which is expected to cause considerable logistical problems next year before finally being completed in early 2005, there are other developments that have Churchill fans eagerly looking ahead to the next few days and weeks. Invariably, fans indulge themselves in what happens on the racetrack, so these should be eventful times: Thirty stakes will be run here this spring, including 15 during Derby week alone.

The action begins Saturday when Midas Eyes makes the one-mile Trial his first race since his eye-popping triumph in the March 15 Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park. In the seven-furlong Swale, the colt's first start since Frankel bought him on behalf of owner Edmund Gann, Midas Eyes emerged best from an early duel to find himself all alone in midstretch.

"It's one of the few times in my career that I've really felt kind of foolish," said Bailey. "I kept thinking something else was running right with me, but actually, nothing was around us. It wasn't like I was hitting him, but I was hand-riding him pretty good to the end. Maybe we won by more than we should have."

The winning margin was 9 1/4 lengths. The final time was 1:21.06. The Beyer Speed Figure was 110. And the colt's overall effort was something Bailey can't forget.

"It was an extremely impressive race," said Bailey. "I thought we'd be pretty tough in the Lexington," the Keeneland race that Midas Eyes bypassed last weekend because of a missed workout, "but this is where we are. I don't think the mile should be a problem at all."

Champali, a winner of 6 of 8 starts and over $300,000, figures as a solid second choice behind Midas Eyes in the Grade 3 Trial. Pat Day, the all-time leading rider at Churchill, has the mount on Champali.

"Maybe the favorite is as good as everybody's saying, but we'll try to give him a run," said Greg Foley, trainer of Champali.

Four other 3-year-olds are set to oppose Midas Eyes and Champali. They are Desert Warrior, Miner Moss, Private Gold, and Unbridled America.

The Trial and the Derby serve as bookends for 13 other Derby week stakes, a schedule that includes major events such as the Kentucky Oaks and Louisville Breeders' Cup on Friday and the Woodford Reserve and Humana Distaff on the Derby undercard.

After the Derby, a sufficient number of important races remain, most notably the $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap, a Grade 1 race set for June 14. The Foster is the centerpiece of a program that also includes the $300,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap and two other stakes.

The Trial is carded as the ninth of 10 Saturday races, with post time set for 4:45 p.m. First post for the first five programs of the meet is 12:45.

Two allowance races are carded for the turf course Saturday, but they could be transferred to the main track if the prevailing weather forecasts come true. Thundershowers are being widely predicted for most of Friday and into early Saturday.