03/31/2004 12:00AM

Zito deals with script changes

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - This was supposed to be a happy homecoming for a self-proclaimed adopted son of Kentucky. Not only is Nick Zito a returning champion trainer at Keeneland, having easily topped the standings last fall, but also on a more relevant note, he was supposed to return to the Blue Grass this spring with more Kentucky Derby momentum than anybody else.

Unfortunately for Zito, things aren't exactly falling into place the way he would like. Although The Cliff's Edge ran well to finish third in his latest start, the March 13 Florida Derby, Zito's other two top 3-year-olds are facing obstacles of differing natures: Birdstone has to do a whole lot better than he did in the Lane's End Stakes, and Eurosilver has to get over a lingering illness to stay on the Derby trail.

"This business has no favorites," said Zito. "These kinds of things happen to all of us. I've been on the good end of these situations, when other trainers have their good horses drop out of contention, but when it happens to you, it can be heartbreaking."

Zito said he still has not decided on which of the three major Derby preps on April 10 will be the next race for The Cliff's Edge. He also has not yet decided on who will ride Birdstone in the April 10 Blue Grass, when the colt will try to rebound from his fifth-place finish in the March 20 Lane's End.

Yet easily the most pressing matter involves Eurosilver. As of Wednesday, Eurosilver had missed five days of training because of an internal infection that settled just above the colt's right ear. Standing about 20 feet outside the colt's stall earlier this week, Zito described the infection as "something I've never seen in all my years on the racetrack," while bemoaning the awful timing of its arrival.

"See how it's flat behind his left ear, but there's like this tiny mound over the right?" he said. "Those are membranes that have been affected. He spiked a fever after he got back to the barn Friday, and Dr. [Paul] Byars put him on antibiotics."

Since then, Eurosilver has walked the shed row under tack for about 30 minutes each morning. Zito said the fever has subsided and the colt is no longer being medicated.

Zito said he had no timetable for a return to training or a next race, whether that would be the April 17 Lexington Stakes or even the May 1 Derby. "I'd rather not get into the whole what-if thing," he said.

Zito began to speculate that perhaps it was an upper molar that contributed to the infection, "but we really don't know how it started. All we know is he got it, and now the only thing that matters is how we deal with it."

Zito, who won the Derby in 1991 with Strike the Gold and 1994 with Go for Gin, has posted two ominous black-and-orange "Keep Out" signs on his outer barn wall, just outside of where Eurosilver's stall is located in Barn 32. The trainer can become quickly agitated when anyone asks to get a closer look at the colt.

"I just want to give him a chance to be a horse," he said. "Let's just leave him alone."

So Zito is back in Kentucky, feeling more than a little uneasy about how his quest for a third Derby victory is unfolding. He has all of April to see whether his homecoming gets any happier.

Halfbridled rivals admire her

As soon as Halfbridled was defeated last month in her 3-year-old debut in the Santa Anita Oaks, the skeptics started coming out of the woodwork. But at least two high-profile admirers have remained on her bandwagon: Frank Brothers and Carl Nafzger, both of whom will start horses against Halfbridled when the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes is run here Saturday at 1 1/16 miles.

"She got beat, but so what?" said Brothers, who will saddle unbeaten Madcap Escapade for her two-turn debut in the $500,000 Ashland. "I thought she was arguably the best 2-year-old of either sex last year, and nothing's happened to change my mind."

"I thought her race at Santa Anita was big, really big," said Nafzger, who will saddle Last Song. "For a first race back, I was extremely impressed. She's the champ, you know. She's got a right to improve in a big way off that race."

Keeneland officials also are expecting Ashado and La Reina for the Ashland.

Permanent steward replacement still sought

Mickey Sample will continue to serve at Keeneland as interim state steward. Sample has served in that role at Turfway Park since January, when longtime chief steward Bernie Hettel resigned under pressure.

In addition, Ron Herbstreit, also a steward at Turfway, has replaced longtime association steward Jack Middleton at Keeneland. Middleton has resigned because of health problems. The lone remaining Keeneland steward from last fall is Rick Leigh.

Officials in the Republican administration of Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher said they are continuing to search for permanent replacements for both roles that Hettel filled for nearly 20 years. Hettel also served as executive director of the Kentucky Racing Commission, which has since been replaced by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority. The KHRA has not announced whether either position will be filled before the Derby.

Injured jockey Johnston set for return

Jockey Mark Johnston, who broke a collarbone at Turfway in the Feb. 4 spill in which Mike Rowland suffered fatal injuries, has been exercising horses for about a week and will return to action this weekend at Keeneland.

Johnston is a Lebanon, Ky., native who has won over 3,000 races, most of them in Maryland.

* Ten races will be carded every Friday and Saturday throughout the meet, said Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman. "That's a minor change from the last few years, when we would have nine races on some Fridays and Saturdays and 10 on some others," he said.

* As of Wednesday, at least eight 3-year-olds were probable for the Blue Grass: Action This Day, Birdstone, Breakaway, Limehouse, Lion Heart, Mustanfar, Preachinatthebar, and That's an Outrage.

* Perhaps the most notable change in the stakes schedule this spring involves the $150,000 Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings, a 2 1/2-mile steeplechase that traditionally had been run on closing day. This year, the Royal Chase will be run one Friday earlier, on April 16. The Grade 1 race is part of the Sport of Kings Challenge, an international series of steeplechase events. It has been run at Keeneland every spring since 1998.

* Keeneland once again is offering a free online handicapping contest throughout the meet. First prize is $3,000. For more information, log on to keeneland.com.