10/15/2002 11:00PM

Act II has Zabenz in championship chase

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Zabenz was running out of career opportunities last spring.

Based in Australia with trainer Robert Smerdon, Zabenz sported the unattractive record of one win in 22 starts and earnings of $9,719. With a family history heavy on stamina, Zabenz was no factor over a mile and was just getting warmed up over 1 1/2 miles.

With few options remaining, Smerdon and owner Michael Watt tried Zabenz in steeplechase races. Six months later, the 5-year-old horse's career has undergone a revival. The one-time throwout may finish the season as a major stakes winner on two continents.

On Saturday, Zabenz will try for his third major stakes win of the year in the $250,000 Breeders' Cup Steeplechase at Far Hills, N.J. It's a long way removed from his 0-for-8 record to begin the year.

"He was a natural from the start over jumps," Smerdon said.

Zabenz has won 4 of 5 starts over hurdles, including the $99,700 Grand National Hurdle at Flemington, Australia, in June, his final start before arriving in this country.

At Saratoga, Zabenz made two appearances. He finished third in an allowance race on Aug. 22 and won the meeting's top jump race, the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup, over a soft turf course on Aug. 29. In that race, he took the lead on the final turn and won by a convincing 7 1/4 lengths against a strong field.

The victory vaulted Zabenz into contention for the Eclipse Award as the nation's leading steeplechaser. A victory Saturday at Far Hills would greatly enhance his championship chances.

There is no parimutuel betting on the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase at Far Hills, but Zabenz is considered the leading candidate. The race has drawn eight entrants, including the last two winners - All Gong (2000) and Quel Senor (2001) - and Flat Top, the 1998 champion steeplechaser.

One major absentee is It's a Giggle, the winner of the Royal Chase at Keeneland earlier this year. He was not entered because of the expected soft turf conditions, according to his trainer, Jonathan Sheppard.

The Breeders' Cup program is the only day of racing at the central New Jersey course. The day is a mix of top-class steeplechase racing and the festive atmosphere of a tailgate party attended by approximately 50,000 people. With its uphill finish and 14 fences, the two-mile, five-furlong course for the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase is considered a test for a potential champion.

Zabenz is the best horse trained by Smerdon, 47, who has a 50-horse barn in Australia that consists mostly of flat horses.

After the Turf Writers Cup, Zabenz was given a week off on a New York farm before moving to trainer Allen Jerkens's barn at Belmont Park, where he has been based for the last month.

Zabenz made one start in an allowance race over 1 3/8 miles on turf at Belmont Park on Sept. 22, but finished sixth at 22-1. Bettors know the 5-year-old needs a fence in front of him to be at his best.

Zabenz has not jumped a fence since the Saratoga race, but that does not worry Smerdon.

"In Australia, once we get them jumping, we don't jump them too much between starts," he said. "He's a sharp horse. I wouldn't be too concerned with him."

After Saturday's race, Zabenz will get a vacation in Florida, Smerdon said. Smerdon and Watt, who lives in England, are discussing a European campaign for 2003. In a way, a stop on yet another continent would be fitting. So far this year, Zabenz's career has gone places that no one could have dreamed.