02/14/2003 12:00AM

Badge of Silver gets test


NEW ORLEANS - Ronny Werner, former Quarter Horse trainer and Texan for life, worked outside his barn, grilling fajitas for his crew late Thursday morning. He took a break to present a smallish bay colt stabled directly across the shed row from his office.

"The secret is to see who the trainer keeps in the closest stall," Werner said. "That's usually the good one."

The horse was Badge of Silver, a Silver Deputy colt owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey who has started his career with two exceptionally fast wins. And he is the good one. Like many of Werner's young prospects, Badge of Silver developed early and showed intense speed as a 2-year-old. He made his debut last April at Keeneland and won a 4 1/2-furlong race by about a mile.

"The horses with that kind of speed, they show it to you right off the bat," Werner said. "This colt pretty much was the best of the group."

But the last few years, Werner's 2-year-old sprint sensations have run into distance limitations. Werner thinks Badge of Silver is different, and in Sunday's Risen Star Stakes, Badge of Silver will try to carry his speed around two turns for the first time.

Badge of Silver cracked a cannon bone in the Keeneland romp, an injury that required surgery and rest. But when a cracked cannon bone heals, it heals, and Badge of Silver put to rest questions about his soundness in his comeback here

Jan. 23. It that race, Badge of Silver won an allowance race by seven lengths, running six furlongs in 1:09.70, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 108.

Now, the questions are about distance. April 2-year-old races are hotbeds of compact speedballs, precocious horses that have come around faster than most others in their generation. Maiden winners at Keeneland in the spring generally aren't horses in route stakes a year later. But there are exceptions.

"You will see horses win like that and disappear," said trainer Ken McPeek. "But it's very simple. Horses with class can win at any distance, whether it's four and a half furlongs or a mile and a half."

McPeek trains Take Charge Lady, who won her Keeneland debut two seasons ago at 4 1/2 furlongs, and won multiple graded stakes in route races last year. He also trained Tejano Run, who won his debut as a 2-year-old at Keeneland and finished second in the Kentucky Derby. "These two horses simply had so much raw talent that they went out and ran over the competition," McPeek said. "Top horses tend to be able to do that regardless of how far they want to run."

"Winning at four and a half furlongs and winning stakes over a distance is a little bit rare," said trainer Neil Howard, who has seen first-hand what sort of horse can do it. Summer Squall, winner of the Preakness and second in the Kentucky Derby, drilled a 4 1/2-furlong maiden field at Keeneland in his career debut.

"He illustrated what the word precocious means," Howard said. "He had the breeding to be a classic horse, but he had the physical attributes to be precocious."

Like Badge of Silver, Summer Squall was "kind of small and short-coupled," Howard said. "It became obvious you were looking at a nice sprinting horse, but because of his pedigree, the classics were always in the back of my mind."

Summer Squall, like Badge of Silver, had his 2-year-old season curtailed by injury. Even when Summer Squall was a spring 3-year-old, Howard still didn't know if his athleticism and breeding would make him a route horse.

"He was a brilliant animal, but there was always that question," Howard said. "Pat Day believed in him and kept my confidence up. If he was going to get to the Derby, he needed two-turn races under his belt."

So does Badge of Silver. Werner doesn't like it, but he's compressed Badge of Silver's schedule in order to give him a chance. He gave Badge of Silver a stiff seven-furlong work in company about 10 days after his comeback race, and Badge of Silver blazed five furlongs in a work on Monday. "We're just three weeks between a six-furlong race and a mile and a sixteenth," Werner pointed out. "I've had to crowd things."

Badge of Silver is by Silver Deputy, whose progeny win both sprints and routes, and out of a mare by Silver Hawk, who sires long-distance turf horses. "He's kind of a little horse, but he has some leg," said Werner.

Badge of Silver seems to move effortlessly. His ears were pricked and jockey Robby Albarado never urged him when he won his allowance comeback.

"He's real smooth in the way he hits the ground," said Werner, who regularly exercises his own horses and knows exactly how good Badge of Silver feels. "He's really a smart colt, and that's what we like about him. If you move your hands [on the reins], he's right there. To my mind, he's going to go a mile and a sixteenth. After that, I don't know how far. He's bounced out of his works and he's been knocking the bottom out of his feed tub. He's got a big hurdle to clear here."

Werner has had more experience training horses to race a quarter-mile than a mile and a quarter. But Derby kingpins Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert both started with Quarter Horses.

"I'm a horseman," Werner said. "Whether you're getting them to go 220 yards or a mile and an eighth, it doesn't matter. There are different ways of training, yeah, but the thing is to know your horse."

Werner thinks he knows his. And if Badge of Silver backs him up, Werner could be grilling at Churchill Downs this May.