04/09/2006 11:00PM

Zito off to great start, but heartbroken over Beacon Shine's death


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Nick Zito sent out five winners during the first two days of the Keeneland spring meet to take a commanding early lead atop the trainer standings, but it was far from a perfect opening weekend for Zito.

Beacon Shine, who was scheduled to be Zito's lone starter on the Sunday card, suffered a severe case of colic early Saturday in a Churchill Downs stall and died within "a couple of hours," said Zito.

"It was sad, how fast he went," Zito said.

Beacon Shine, owned by the Kinsman Stud of George Steinbrenner, was entered in the Lafayette Stakes before being stricken. A Florida-bred by Montbrook, the colt won the Flash Stakes at Belmont Park in his third and final start at 2, then returned from an eight-month layoff on Feb. 9 at Gulfstream Park, only to stumble at the break and lose his jockey.

In the final start of a star-crossed career, Beacon Shine ran fifth behind Sharp Humor in the March 4 Swale Stakes at Gulfstream.

"I loved that horse," said Zito.

The death of Beacon Shine put a damper on an otherwise sensational weekend for Zito, who won two races Friday and three more Saturday from nine overall starters. Among his winners were Wanderin Boy, who captured a high-level allowance by 10 lengths, and Ice N Lemon, a colt owned by Zito's wife, Kim.

Zito, 58, has won or tied for four Keeneland training titles. His lone spring title came in 1997.

Balance back in the Oaks mix

Although Balance was beaten so soundly Saturday in the Ashland Stakes that trainer David Hofmans initially was inclined to skip the Kentucky Oaks, it didn't take long for Hofmans to reconsider.

By Sunday morning, Hofmans and owner John Amerman were leaning in favor of running their standout filly in the May 5 Oaks, although only if the filly rebounds from her 10 3/4-length defeat with a "couple of good weeks" of training at Hollywood Park, said Bob Feld, stable agent for Amerman Racing.

Balance was scheduled to return Monday to California. If all proceeds well in the interim, she will return to Kentucky for the Oaks about a week before the race, said Feld.

Artie Schiller sharp for Maker's Mark

Artie Schiller, whose last race was his victory in the Oct. 29 Breeders' Cup Mile, tuned up for his 5-year-old debut when he worked five furlongs Monday in company over the Belmont Park training track. Starting alongside stablemate Little Suleyman, Artie Schiller pulled away to finish in 59.72 seconds in a move designed by trainer Jimmy Jerkens to sharpen the horse for his return to action Friday in the Grade 2, $250,000 Maker's Mark Mile over the Keeneland turf.

Besides Artie Schiller, the other likely starters in the Maker's Mark Mile include Aragorn, Good Reward, Gulch Approval, Honor in War, and Miesque's Approval.

The Thursday feature at Keeneland is the Grade 2, $250,000 Stonerside Beaumont for 3-year-old fillies. Probables are Dance Daily, Diplomat Lady, India, Joint Effort, Lake Alice, Terri's Charmer, and Wildcat Bettie B. The Beaumont is run at the Beard Course distance of seven furlongs and 184 feet.

Battle Won 'ready to roll again'

When Battle Won scored an upset the Churchill Downs Handicap last May, it was in the gelding's second start off a layoff, the first having come at Keeneland.

Trainer Chuck Simon is looking for the same sort of result this spring. When Battle Won goes Wednesday in the seventh race, a $67,000 classified allowance at 6 1/2 furlongs on the main track, it will be his first race since a last-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Battle Won, an earner of $553,710, was sent to an Ocala, Fla., farm after the Breeders' Cup, and Simon got him back at Tampa Bay Downs in late February.

"His last two works [at Churchill] have been outstanding," said Simon. "He's given me every indication he's ready to roll again."

Backing up new starter

When Churchill announced the hiring of Scott Jordan as its new starter last week, the appointment came with one caveat: Jordan will not be the starter next month for the Kentucky Oaks or Derby.

That assignment has gone to Bob Duncan, the longtime former starter for the New York Racing Association. In a press release, Churchill stated that Duncan will "assist and advise" Jordan during Derby weekend and will "oversee the start" of both the Oaks and Derby.

A Churchill official said Monday that such phrasing can be translated to mean Duncan "will push the button" to start the Oaks and Derby.

As the starter for all other races, Jordan, 35, replaces his former boss, Roger Nagle, who was fired in February.

* The biannual College Scholarship Day at Keeneland keeps getting bigger. During Friday's opening-day card, a record 3,400-plus students registered for the raffle, with 10 scholarships, worth $1,000 each, being awarded. A total of $190,000 in scholarships have been awarded by the event's co-sponsors, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association and participating tracks, since the first College Day was held in 2000.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman and David Grening