12/12/2003 12:00AM

Zito's top prospects resting for Derby trail

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MIAMI - The Kentucky Derby is still almost five months away, but it's never too early for a trainer to start thinking about the race and what it will take to get a 3-year-old there next spring - especially when that trainer is Nick Zito, already a two-time Derby winner, whose barn is overflowing with potential Derby candidates.

Zito has bedded down his three top 2-year-old prospects, Birdstone, Eurosilver, and The Cliff's Edge, at the Palm Meadows training center in Boynton Beach and expects the trio to begin training in earnest for their 3-year-old campaigns within the next several weeks. He also has in the barn El Prado Rob, who finished sixth following an eventful trip in the Remsen.

Birdstone completed his 2-year-old campaign with a convincing victory in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes. Eurosilver was equally as impressive closing out his first season with a 4 3/4-length victory in Keeneland's Grade 2 Lane's End Breeders' Futurity. He came out of the race with bucked shins. The Cliff's Edge captured the Grade 3 Iroquois and Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club stakes before shipping to south Florida for the winter.

"None of them are ready to roll just yet," Zito said while visiting his Gulfstream Park barn this past week. "We pin-fired Eurosilver's shins after he won the Lane's End to make sure the problem did not reoccur, and that process is slow to heal. He's in light training now.

"I'm planning to go easy on Birdstone because I want to have him strong for the spring," Zito said. "I'll discuss the options with [owner Marylou] Whitney before making any firm plans with him. The Cliff's Edge ran on Nov. 29 and raced five times as a 2-year-old, so he's fit. I'm not worried about him."

Zito said he may not have any of the big three ready for the first major test of the Gulfstream meet, the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth on Feb. 14, but he acknowledged that the $1 million Florida Derby would be the major objective for at least one of them.

"All three are quality horses, but right now I'm just going to play it by ear," Zito said. "Hopefully they'll all be ready to run here sometime in February, providing there are no coughs or this and that. I guess at the moment I'd say if one of the three fit the bill for the Florida Derby, it would probably be Birdstone."

Hooper or Hal's Hope next for Puzzlement

One barn over from Zito, Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens was thinking more about older horses than 2-year-olds. His multiple stakes winner Puzzlement has not started since taking ill following his third-place finish in the Grade 1 Woodward on Sept. 6.

"He came down with a temperature after the Woodward and it took a long time to come out of it," Jerkens said. "He was breezing pretty good before we shipped down, but I'll see how he works here before making a decision on where to run him next."

Jerkens's two immediate options for Puzzlement are the Grade 3 Fred W. Hooper Handicap at Calder on Dec. 27 or the Grade 3 Hal's Hope Handicap on Jan. 3, opening day at Gulfstream. His first major goal of the meet is the Grade 1 Donn Handicap.

"Right now I'm leaning towards running him here in the Hal's Hope," said Jerkens. "I might need the extra time to get him ready. I'll know a lot more after he works on Saturday.

"The one plus about the Hooper is that race is a mile and one-eighth, while the one here is a mile and one-sixteenth, although sometimes the shorter races set up better for his style than the longer ones."

Vogue Girl retired after suffering fracture

Trainer Allen Iwinski reports that his stakes-winning 2-year-old filly Vogue Girl suffered a condylar fracture while working at Gulfstream last Saturday and will be retired. A half-sister to Scrimshaw by Souvenir Copy, Vogue Girl won all three of her starts, including Delaware's one-mile Blue Hen Stakes.

"She'll retire undefeated but does have some value as a broodmare," Iwinski said. "Right now she's stable, and if we can sound her up in time we might try to breed her this year. I've never had any troubles with this racetrack in the past, and now my best horse breaks down."