03/24/2005 1:00AM

Would-be Louisville sluggers

Benoit & Associates
Spanish Chestnut was third in his last race, the Santa Catalina, but his jockey, Gary Stevens, is expecting a stronger performance in the Lane's End.

FLORENCE, Ky. - All across the United States, sports fans are eager to see who can survive one more round and advance to the next stage.

And that's not just the NCAA basketball tournament.

A horse race that essentially shapes up as a critical elimination for the 131st Kentucky Derby will be run Saturday at Turfway Park, where nine 3-year-olds will clash in the 34th running of the $500,000 . Whether the Grade 2 Lane's End will produce one or more viable contenders for the Derby is unclear, but this much is not: The race should be a terrific one for the betting public.

Spanish Chestnut or Magna Graduate could be the lukewarm favorite in a 1 1/8-mile race that also drew on-the-fringe Derby hopefuls Andromeda's Hero, Texcess, and Mayan King, as well as four more who could jump right into the Derby fray with a big effort.

"I know people say it a lot, but this really does look like a race with a lot of depth," said Pat Byrne, trainer of Magna Graduate. "We'll see how much quality there is. Obviously we're hoping our colt will come out on top."

Spanish Chestnut, most recently third behind Declan's Moon and Going Wild in the March 5 Santa Catalina Stakes, ships in from California in terrific shape, said his jockey, Gary Stevens.

"A lot of people jumped off his bandwagon when he ran third the other day," said Stevens. "I don't like to make a lot of excuses, but he missed a couple works before that race and has been real impressive since then. Patrick thinks he's the kind of colt that needs to run every three weeks or so."

Stevens said the speedy Spanish Chestnut "reminds me of Thunder Gulch," the horse Stevens rode to win the 1995 Derby. "He's big and carries a lot of weight and is always in there fighting. I'm looking forward to him running a big race on Saturday."

Andromeda's Hero, one more in the seemingly endless supply of Derby prospects trained by Nick Zito, figures to be no worse than the third choice Saturday after rallying from far back to win his last start, the Feb. 26 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Part of the allure of Andromeda's Hero, a Fusaichi Pegasus colt, is that Rafael Bejarano, who dominated Turfway and the rest of the Kentucky circuit last year and since has become the leading jockey at Aqueduct, has been named to ride.

The other Lane's End starters bring forth some strong points, too.

Texcess, trained by California-based Paul Aguirre, won the $1 million Delta Jackpot in December and figures as a major pace threat. Mayan King is unbeaten in two starts for high-profile owner David Cassidy and trainer Gary Contessa. Ken McPeek, who trains the uncoupled duo of Wild Desert and Diamond Isle, believes both are sitting on major efforts in their second starts of the season. Mr Sword enters with a three-race winning streak for Paraneck Stable and trainer Jennifer Pedersen. And Flower Alley, representing the Todd Pletcher powerhouse barn, comes off a Gulfstream Park maiden victory in which he earned a highly competitive Beyer Speed Figure of 88.

Live television coverage of the Lane's End and a secondary feature, the $100,000 Rushaway Stakes, begins at 4:30 p.m. Eastern on ESPN. The one-hour show also will include taped coverage of the Dubai World Cup and UAE Derby.

The Saturday weather might be a little dicey, just as it was last year when Birdstone, the eventual Belmont and Travers winner, finished a dull fifth as the 3-5 favorite in rainy conditions. Rain was forecast for Friday, and cloudy conditions and a high of 53 is the call for race day.

The usual crowd of about 20,000 is expected again Saturday for the Lane's End, a race that had been known by several other names until the Versailles, Ky., breeding farm began its sponsorship in 2002.

The field

Lane's End Stakes
Purse: $500,000, 1 1/8 miles, Grade 2

1Diamond IsleD. Sarvis15-1
2Magna GraduateJ. Bailey3-1
3Wild DesertR. Albarado8-1
4Andromeda's HeroR. Bejarano4-1
5Flower AlleyJ. Chavez12-1
6TexcessR. Douglas6-1
7Mayan KingJ. Bravo15-1
8Spanish ChestnutG. Stevens5-2
9Mr SwordN. Arroyo Jr10-1

* All starters carry 121 pounds
* Blinkers Off: Texcess
* Odds by DRF
* Television: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN