05/02/2002 12:00AM

Bond makes it to the dance


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When James Bond turned 16, his father gave him a choice for a birthday present: a car or a horse.

Bond chose the horse. Bond's father claimed a filly named Passion for $1,500. Bond won a few races with her, but battled soundness problems with her for almost two years.

"I should have bought the car," Bond, now 44, said.

Last December, Bond had another tough choice to make. Owner Gary West had called Bond and asked him to take over the training of some of his horses who had previously been with Bill Mott. Bond, who considers himself a friend of Mott's and who calls him "one of my heroes," paused.

"It was a very hard thing personally to take the horses," Bond said. "I wanted to talk to Billy first. Billy was great about it."

So Bond accepted the job, and is he ever glad he did. All that has happened in the last five months is Bond has won the Donn Handicap and the Wood Memorial and is now making his Kentucky Derby debut with Buddha, who figures to be one of the top four choices on Saturday.

"I always said I wouldn't come to the Kentucky Derby just to come," Bond said. "But now I'm here with a first-class ticket."

And he is here after 28 years of hard work. After spending about 13 years based at Finger Lakes, a small track in upstate New York, Bond began racing regularly on the New York Racing Association circuit (Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga) in 1988.

Bond developed a reputation as a top trainer of New York-breds, and did himself and the breed proud when he saddled L'Carriere to a second-place finish to Cigar in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic and a third to Cigar in the 1996 inaugural running of the Dubai World Cup. L'Carriere also won back-to-back runnings of the Saratoga Cup.

In 1996, Bond won the Travers with Will's Way, and the following year he missed winning a second Travers by a nose with Behrens. Behrens, owned by longtime Bond clients Anne and Donald Rudder and William Clifton, developed into the best horse Bond has trained, winning five graded stakes and $3.2 million.

Among those who took notice was Gary West, an owner from the Midwest, who said one of the reasons he moved his horses from Mott to Bond was to be a "bigger fish in a smaller pond," noting that Mott has more horses than Bond. He also admired Bond's work with young horses.

"He's a high winning-percentage trainer with all horses, but he's great at developing young horses," said West, who currently has seven horses with Bond, and is sending him six 2-year-olds on Tuesday.

Circumstances dictated that neither Behrens nor Will's Way could make the Triple Crown. After winning his career debut in March of his 3-year-old season, Behrens needed surgery to remove an ankle chip. Will's Way was prepping for the Kentucky Derby in the Flamingo, but injured a stifle in the race.

Bond had no Derby aspirations with Buddha when he first took over the colt's training. Buddha had run 10th in his debut for Mott in September and needed surgery to correct an entrapped epiglottis the following day.

When Bond ran Buddha in a maiden race on Feb. 9 at Gulfstream, he felt Buddha could win, but Bond was more excited about another 3-year-old, Harbor Star, who finished second in his division. Harbor Star has frustrated Bond so much that the horse has since been gelded.

On March 16, Buddha cleared his preliminary allowance hurdle impressively, but the Wood, elevated to a Grade 1 for the first time since 1994, would be his biggest test.

In what was regarded by most observers as the deepest Kentucky Derby prep, Buddha engaged Medaglia d'Oro early on down the backstretch of the Wood, and the two ran together for the final five furlongs of the race, with Buddha prevailing by a head.

"I've never had one at this stage this young that had it all together this quickly," Bond said.

With only four starts under him, Buddha will try to become the first horse since Exterminator (1918) to win the Derby with as few as four starts. Since then, horses with four starts or fewer entering the Derby are 0 for 25, including Congaree, who finished third last year after winning the Wood.

Bond believes there are two reasons Buddha could overcome his inexperience.

"His intelligence is number 1," Bond said. "But his ability is freakish."

Should Buddha win the Derby, Bond will earn a $100,000 bonus from the New York Racing Association for winning the Wood and the Derby.

Enough money to buy a car - or a horse.