11/03/2003 1:00AM

Zito has another sharp youngster


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When Kentucky Derby time rolls around and Nick Zito is not involved, he gets a little melancholy. Having twice won the Derby, Zito tends to wax poetic and grow nostalgic whenever he misses the race, which has happened to him two of the last three years.

Fortunately for Zito, that bummed-out feeling most likely won't hit him next spring. Although the 2004 Derby is nearly six months away - meaning it is far too early to say with certainty what Zito's role will be in it - the odds certainly would seem to favor his being a major player in the May 1 race. Not only does Zito have two of the early Derby favorites, Birdstone and Eurosilver, poised for what he hopes will be a productive winter campaign in Florida, but the trainer added to his embarrassment of 2-year-old riches Sunday when The Cliff's Edge won the Iroquois Stakes by 7 3/4 lengths, the largest margin in the 22-year history of the race.

"We want to come back here in the spring and have a lot of chances with a lot of nice horses," said Zito.

The Cliff's Edge, by Gulch, had a license to run well Sunday. After a sharp maiden victory at Saratoga, he had a very tough trip in the Sept. 13 Kentucky Cup Juvenile but still was able to finish a close third (and was ultimately awarded second by disqualification). The Cliff's Edge had a tough trip when finishing sixth in the Oct. 4 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, and Zito said he believed the colt would have finished second behind Eurosilver with better racing luck.

His third time in Kentucky sure was a charm, for there was no such tough luck Sunday. Given a beautiful trip under Shane Sellers, The Cliff's Edge put his considerable talent on full display.

"He got in the clear and weaved his way out and everything was perfect," said Zito. "That's what we needed. I was just delighted. He's just such a talented colt. He's definitely in the 2-year-old picture, and hopefully next year he'll be in the 3-year-old picture, too."

Zito said he intends to run The Cliff's Edge back in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes Nov. 29, closing day of the Churchill meet. Besides The Cliff's Edge, Birdstone, and Eurosilver, Zito has a fourth potential Derby horse in El Prado Rob, who looked terrific in winning a two-turn allowance last month at Keeneland and is being pointed to the Remsen Stakes later this month at Aqueduct.

Zito, whose Derby winners were Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994, did not have a Derby runner in 2000 or 2002. In 2001, he saddled A.P. Valentine, who finished seventh.

Albarado out for about a month

Bad news and good news hit the Churchill jockey colony Saturday.

The bad news was for Robby Albarado, who suffered a hairline fracture in his right wrist before the first race Saturday. Albarado was scheduled to see a hand specialist Tuesday, but the preliminary diagnosis is that he will be out three or four weeks, meaning he probably will not be able to ride the final weekend (Nov. 27-29) of the fall meet, when several key stakes will be run.

Albarado initially thought he had merely jammed the wrist when he was getting a leg up on his mount, Honoramongthieves, before the first race. But as the afternoon progressed, the pain became worse, and he had to take off after riding in two more races.

Albarado had quite a few potentially lucrative mounts lined up for the rest of the meet. He already has enjoyed a memorable year as the regular rider of Mineshaft, the big favorite to be named 2003 Horse of the Year.

Albarado will be the favorite to be the leading jockey at the four-month Fair Grounds meet, which begins Nov. 27.

Meanwhile, the good news was for Corey Lanerie. When Sweet Jo Jo suffered her fatal breakdown in the Pocahontas Stakes, it appeared that Lanerie might have been badly injured as he lay writhing in pain in the middle of the racetrack. Not only did Lanerie take a hard fall, but a trailing horse, Hot Mail, was unable to avoid the fallen jockey.

"I felt my filly step on him," said Danny Coa, who rode Hot Mail. "She tried to jump over him, but her back leg came down on him. I couldn't help it."

Fortunately, Lanerie had little more than a large bruise just above his right knee and some body soreness. Although Lanerie, 28, took off his mounts Sunday, his agent, Rick Mocklin, said the jockey could ride as early as Tuesday and most likely would be back no later than Wednesday or Thursday.

Second loss

In a kind of cruel twist, the breakdown of Sweet Jo Jo in the Pocahontas was not the first at Churchill this year for the filly's equine family. On May 2, Kentucky Oaks Day, a breakdown also took the life of Blow a Kiss, a half-sister to Sweet Jo Jo.

Blow a Kiss was one of the favorites in the second race on Oaks day, an allowance sprint, when she broke down on the backstretch. Blow a Kiss, a 4-year-old filly, was by Salt Lake. Sweet Jo Jo was by Grand Slam. Both were out of Wild Decision.

* The Cliff's Edge was named by Zito and owner Robert La Penta as a tribute to Cliff Guilliams, the longtime chart-caller on the Kentucky circuit, who works for Equibase and the Evansville Courier.

* Grand Score, the 2-1 co-favorite in the Iroquois, had what his jockey, Pat Day, described as a "horrible" trip before rallying to finish a nonthreatening third. Trainer John T. Ward Jr. said Grand Score, a Grand Slam colt, most likely is finished for the year but will be on the Kentucky Derby trail when he returns to action this winter in Florida.

* Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won the Golden Rod Stakes a record four times, said that not only will Pocahontas winner Stellar Jayne be pointed to the Nov. 29 Golden Rod, but that Be Gentle, his Alcibiades Stakes winner who was beaten 22 lengths in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, also might be shipped back from Santa Anita for the race.

* Although the highlight of the coming weekend, the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Distaff, is open to fillies and mares, it is a pair of 3-year-olds who figure to be the favorites. Yell and Awesome Humor, both multiple graded stakes winners, will face each other in the $200,000, one-mile CD Distaff. Pat Day is scheduled to ride Yell, and Larry Melancon will be aboard Awesome Humor.

* Cajun Beat, upset winner of the BC Sprint, returned to training Sunday at Churchill, even though trainer Steve Margolis had hoped to give the gelding a few more days off. "We had to get him out because he was going crazy," said Margolis, who is pointing Cajun Beat to the Dec. 26 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita.

* The pick six wasn't hit over the weekend, and the carryover into the Tuesday card was $30,769. The pick six is a $2 minimum at Churchill.