09/10/2004 11:00PM

Austin Barber one to catch

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POMONA, Calif. - Austin Barber will employ his usual front-running style Monday in the $60,000 Derby Trial Stakes at Fairplex Park, even while cast in the unfamiliar role as co-favorite.

Well-beaten at odds of 20-1 and 42-1 in the Oceanside Stakes and La Jolla Handicap on turf at Del Mar, Austin Barber drops in class and switches to dirt Monday in the 1 1/16-mile Derby Trial.

"We gave him the two shots . . . those horses were just too good," trainer Ed Halpern said.

On Monday, Austin Barber's eight rivals might never catch him. The race, Halpern said, "certainly looks like a good spot."

The main competition will come from Lindero, a hanging closer who habitually finishes second; Lava Man and Chubasco Red, both claimed for $50,000 by top stables; and Last Time in Town, an in-form Del Mar shipper who lost by only 1 1/4 lengths in a 2003 Fairplex stakes. The Derby Trial outsiders are King Con, Forgiveable Sin, Point Dume, and Gallant Discover.

Austin Barber's strategy is no secret. A front-running gelding, he was purchased privately in May after winning three of his previous eight starts in Florida. "We were just looking for a useful horse," Halpern said.

Austin Barber arrived in California in June and trained well enough that Halpern and owners Greg Montgomery, Scott Sharp, Jeri Dunford, and Louella Russ gave the gelding a shot in the Oceanside. Austin Barber was hooked through a suicidal pace and tired to finish fifth.

After running sixth in the Grade 3 La Jolla, it was time for easier opposition, and Austin Barber, who is in form, may find it on Monday.

His bullet five-furlong workout Sept. 5 at Del Mar was out of character for a Halpern-trained horse. "It's definitely not my style, I don't work horses that fast. He came back like it was a regular work," Halpern said.

Austin Barber has won 3 of 19 starts, and can win the Derby Trial under Iggy Puglisi by holding off Lindero. That usually is not too difficult.

Lindero's ability is not the question. Trained by Juan Garcia, he finished second in a first-condition allowance against older last time, and a repeat of that 92 Beyer Speed Figure could make him the winner. The problem is his reluctance to pass a horse in the stretch. A runner-up in 4 of his last 6 starts, Lindero ran once at Fairplex last year, and finished second.