04/14/2004 12:00AM

Weaver hanging on to Derby hopes

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Like everyone else, George Weaver does not know which horses, if any, will earn their Kentucky Derby stripes when the Coolmore Lexington Stakes is run Saturday at Keeneland. But Weaver, as the trainer of one of the race favorites, Saratoga County, sure intends to find out.

"I don't want to make the mistake of writing the horse off before we even know for sure" whether Saratoga County is Derby material, Weaver said.

Saratoga County, winner of the Gotham Stakes in his last start, is one of about 10 3-year-olds expected for the Grade 2, $325,000 Lexington, a 1 1/16-mile race that marks the end of the major prep season for the May 1 Derby. Because Saratoga County is by Valid Expectations, a sire noted for producing sprinters and milers, there is skepticism whether the colt will be able to handle the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance, regardless of how he runs Saturday.

"There are a lot of horses that their pedigrees and all kinds of things, like their running styles, indicate they don't want to go that far," Weaver said. "But they end up doing it anyway. Good horses kind of overcome boundaries such as pedigree. We'll evaluate his race in the Lexington, and after that he'll let us know what he wants to do and when he's ready to do it."

Weaver, 33, went out on his own two years ago but has credibility well beyond that, having worked for six years as a stablehand under D. Wayne Lukas and another six years as an assistant to Todd Pletcher.

Saratoga County, with Javier Castellano to ride, figures to vie for favoritism with Fire Slam (Pat Day), Quintons Gold Rush (Jerry Bailey), Pomeroy (Mike Smith), and Boomzeeboom (Corey Nakatani) in a well-matched running of the Lexington.

Lucifer's Stone takes Appalachian

Lucifer's Stone, ridden by Jose Santos, was up in the final jumps to nail Western Ransom for a nose victory Wednesday in the $113,500 Appalachian Stakes at Keeneland.

Owned by Team Solaris Stable and trained by Linda Rice, Lucifer's Stone returned $6 as the favorite in a field of nine 3-year-old fillies in the Appalachian, a one-mile grass race. The win was the third in a row for Lucifer's Stone, a Horse Chestnut filly who captured the Grade 3 Herecomesthebride Stakes at Gulfstream in her last start. She finished in 1:37.58 over a firm course.

Badge of Silver's season in doubt

Owner Ken Ramsey said veterinarians are in the process of deciding whether Badge of Silver, the rapid 4-year-old who was scratched last weekend from the Carter Handicap at Aqueduct, can proceed with a spring-summer campaign or if a nagging foot ailment will bring the colt's season to a temporary halt.

"The problem is with his right front foot," said Ramsey. "There's a hematoma that's causing him to carry heat. We should know soon whether it can be treated, which would allow us to make the Churchill Downs Handicap on Kentucky Derby Day, or if surgery will be required, which obviously would make us stop on him."

Badge of Silver, trained by Ronny Werner, returned Tuesday to Churchill, having shipped to Aqueduct the day before the Carter. Badge of Silver finished ninth in the Feb. 16 General George Stakes at Laurel Park in his most recent start.

Wanted: State steward

With the Churchill Downs spring meet starting April 24, a week from Saturday, the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority still has not filled the vacant position of state steward.

"Obviously we want to announce it as quickly as possible, but we're still not in a position to do that," said Mark York, deputy secretary of the Environment and Public Protection Cabinet, which oversees the KHRA.

The KHRA is looking to hire a state steward and an executive director. Veteran racing official Mickey Sample is serving as interim state steward at Keeneland. He is expected to continue in that position at Churchill until a permanent replacement is announced.

Strong allowance on Friday card

Besides the Doubledogdare and Royal Chase, the Friday program at Keeneland offers two allowance races, including a $67,000, seven-furlong allowance that pits several stakes-caliber runners.

Dubai Sheikh, with Jerry Bailey to ride, is one of the logical favorites over Added Edge and Be Like Mike.