02/27/2006 12:00AM

Zito looks to get ball rolling

Noonmark, winning his 2006 debut Feb. 11, could be a threat on the Triple Crown trail for trainer Steve Asmussen. He runs in Saturday's Swale.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Unlike a year ago, when he had arguably his best Gulfstream Park meeting, highlighted by victories in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, this has been a winter of discontent for trainer Nick Zito.

Zito hopes things turn around quickly, and there would be no better time for that to happen than this weekend, when Zito will be an

active participant in Gulfstream's Spectacular Saturday III program, highlighted by the Grade 2, $300,000 Fountain of Youth for Kentucky Derby hopefuls.

Zito said he plans to run both Great Point and Hemingway's Key in the Fountain of Youth, which is the final prep for the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby here April 1. He will also send Beacon Shine in the $150,000 Swale, Andromeda's Hero and/or Sun King in the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap, and Middle Earth in the $200,000 Richter Scale Breeders' Cup.

The Fountain of Youth, which Zito won last year with High Fly, is likely to draw a field of 10. Great Point, second in the Holy Bull, will likely be second choice behind multiple Grade 1 winner First Samurai. Others pointing to the race are Can't Beat It, Corinthian, Flashy Bull, Itsallaboutthechase, Jazil, My Golden Song, and Rehoboth.

At this stage, Great Point is Zito's top 3-year-old prospect. A son of Point Given, Great Point followed a smashing debut win last fall with disappointing efforts in a pair of graded stakes. Equipped with blinkers, Great Point regrouped to win an entry-level allowance (via disqualification) at Calder followed by a hard-charging second to Barbaro in the Grade 3 Holy Bull, run over a sloppy track. It was a strong effort considering Great Point started from post 12 and encountered traffic trouble on the turn under Jeremy Rose.

"He tried to save some ground, and a horse stopped in front of him," Zito said. "He actually was better off making a big, sweeping move."

Zito said Great Point has been training well since the Holy Bull, including a sharp half-mile in 46.20 seconds on Feb. 17 and a five-furlong move in 1:01.80 on Sunday at Gulfstream. The Sunday work was done in company with Pinpoint.

Zito will also send out Hemingway's Key in the Fountain of Youth, after he scratched him out of a second-level allowance race on Sunday. Hemingway's Key won his first two starts before finishing 11th of 12 in the Holy Bull.

As of Monday, Zito did not have a rider for Hemingway's Key. Javier Castellano, who has ridden him twice, is booked to ride Corinthian.

At Palm Meadows on Monday, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin's pair of Fountain of Youth starters, Flashy Bull and Jazil, worked four furlongs together in 48.60 seconds on Monday. My Golden Song, third in the Holy Bull, worked five furlongs in 1:01 at Palm Meadows.

Noonmark benefits from patience

Private Vow is regarded as trainer Steve Asmussen's top 3-year-old, but Asmussen has another talented runner who could soon join his stablemate on the Triple Crown trail.

Noonmark, who made a successful 3-year-old debut by taking a six-furlong allowance race on Feb. 11, will likely be favored in Saturday's Grade 2 Swale Stakes at seven furlongs.

As a son of Unbridled's Song out of a Storm Cat mare, Noonmark shouldn't be limited to sprinting, but Asmussen elected to give Noonmark time to mature following his maiden victory in October and believes the horse is better off for it.

"I thought we took a bigger benefit giving him some time, and we did," Asmussen said. "You're older, you're heavier, and you're still going as fast. It's the best of everything. We didn't lose where we were, and we feel like we did the right thing with him."

Asmussen said he would let Noonmark dictate whether he's a horse worth considering for the Kentucky Derby.

"You don't eliminate yourself," Asmussen said. "You're still at a stage where the Swale is a big step up. With Private Vow, you have a 3-year-old that's a multiple graded-stakes winner, including around two turns. That puts you in one area. With Noonmark, you have a horse with a lot of ability you hope has very good races in his future."

Both Private Vow, who is being pointed to the Rebel at Oaklawn Park on March 18, and Noonmark worked Monday at Palm Meadows. Private Vow worked six furlongs in 1:14.40, and Noonmark worked five furlongs in 1:01.80.

A big field is likely for the Swale, including Beacon Shine, Bear Character, Catcominatcha, City Attraction, Court Folly, Electrify, In Summation, Sharp Humor, and Yes He's the Man. Praying for Cash and Showing Up are possible.

Funny Cide all set for Saturday

Funny Cide completed preparations for Saturday's Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap by working five furlongs in 59.60 seconds Monday morning at Gulfstream Park.

According to trainer Barclay Tagg, Funny Cide went his first quarter in 25 seconds, meaning he came home in 34.60.

"He galloped out strong; he came out of it well," said Tagg. "He's doing really, really well. I hope he runs well."

This will be Funny Cide's third start at the meet. He finished seventh in the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector Handicap at six furlongs and second in a one-mile allowance race.

Funny Cide was assigned 114 pounds for the Gulfstream Park Handicap, the lightest weight assignment of his career. Those considered definite for the race are Suave, O'Connell's, Harlington, Contante, and Zoffinger. Andromeda's Hero, Sun King, Who's Crying Now, and On Thin Ice could also run.

Many will challenge Silver Train

Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Silver Train will have plenty of company in the starting gate in Saturday's Grade 2 Richter Scale Breeders' Cup Sprint Championship. Silver Train will be the starting highweight at 120 pounds.

Among those expected to challenge are Sir Greeley, who beat Funny Cide and Sun King in a one-mile allowance race, Judiths Wild Rush, Mister Fotis, Pirate King, Valid Video, and Middle Earth. Friendly Island is considered possible.

Strong Contender eyes Rebel, Gotham

Strong Contender, who thrust himself into the 3-year-old picture with an easy allowance win here last week, galloped for the first time since that victory Monday morning over the Gulfstream Park strip.

Strong Contender rallied to an easy victory in his career debut at Arlington Park in August but was sidelined because of a minor injury discovered shortly after the race. He finally returned to action here last Wednesday, leading throughout before drawing off to a 4 3/4-length victory. Ridden by Edgar Prado, Strong Contender fell 0.6 second shy of the one-mile track record.

"He's happy, I'm happy, everybody's happy," said trainer John Ward on Monday. "He was a little deeper than I thought he would be for his return. By that, I mean he was more seasoned than expected for only the second start of his career. That opens up a few more options for me, because now I can look to run him back in four or five weeks instead of three."

Ward said he will wait until the weekend before making a final decision, but said the Rebel or Gotham on March 18 were the most likely options for Strong Contender's next start. He also mentioned the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park on March 25 as a possibility.

"I could probably run him just once more before the Derby, but I have to make sure we have some graded money, and we'd be putting all our eggs in one basket if we did that," said Ward. "Right now I'm more inclined to go to the Gotham, because it looks to be coming up with a lighter field than the Rebel, getting transportation to New York would be a little easier, and the race is run over a winterized racetrack."

Ward is being cautiously optimistic with Strong Contender.

"Edgar was really excited after he got off him in the winner's circle last week," said Ward. "He said he hadn't even gotten close to the bottom of him, and look how fast he ran. This horse is a real professional and has lots of talent, but he's still got a lot to prove and a lot of doors to go through before we get to the Derby."

* Olaya, winner of the Long Island Handicap and an allowance race earlier in the meet, heads the prospective field for Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 The Very One Handicap at 1 7/16 miles on the turf. Meanwhile, Honey Ryder, who won the E.P. Taylor last fall, is expected to make her season debut in Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 Honey Fox Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the turf.

* Keyed Entry, the undefeated colt who upset First Samurai in the Hutcheson Stakes, worked five furlongs in 1:00 Monday at Palm Meadows. It was the fastest of 46 works at the distance. Trainer Todd Pletcher said Keyed Entry would likely make his next start in the Rebel at Oaklawn Park on March 18.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch