04/03/2002 12:00AM

Bringing up babies: The Ronny Werner story

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The hottest trend at the Keeneland spring meet last year had nothing to do with khakis, blue blazers, or topsider shoes. It didn't involve seeing and being seen in the ultra-exclusive clubhouse. And it sure wasn't uncovering the secrets to how the track's caterers make that terrific burgoo.

No, the hottest trend was cashing bets on 2-year-olds trained by the new kid in town, Ronny Werner.

From a mere seven starters last spring, Werner won five times. Four of the wins were 2-year-olds making their career debuts. The other was by a first-time starter named Touch Tone, a 3-year-old who four months later finished a game second to the eventual Horse of the Year, Point Given, in the Haskell at Monmouth Park.

One year later, Werner is back at Keeneland. Only this time, instead of bringing just a handful of babies, Werner has brought a veritable barnful. In a two-day period here last week, Werner sent out 22 horses for officials workouts - and, amazingly, all but one of them were 2-year-olds.

Werner, a former Quarter Horse trainer who began concentrating on Thoroughbreds several years ago, is a soft-spoken 45-year-old Texan who, during morning training hours, can be easily identified by his cowboy hat, spurs, chaps, and Southern drawl. Talking casually in his Barn 7 office early this week, he confirmed that he is prepared to launch a widespread assault this time around at Keeneland.

"We'd never had the caliber of horse we felt could compete at a meet like this until last year," said Werner, referring to himself and his main client, Dallas-area car dealer Tom Durant. "It ended up working out. We did have a super meet.

"Asking to have another meet like that would be impossible," Werner added.

But that's not what the tote board will say when his horses are led over to run in Headley Course races at 4 1/2 furlongs. After what transpired here last year, Keeneland fans are certain to bet his 2-year-olds with both fists.

"I'm sure they'll be all over us," said Werner.

The meet will be just one race old when the window-pounding commences. Werner has entered Down Play in the second race on Friday's opening-day card, and although the trainer declined to single out any of his babies for special mention, he did provide this revelation.

"Every time I go out of my way to talk about one or another, I jinx myself," he said. "Let's just say that the best ones I've got are ready to go. When they run right off the bat, they're probably going to be ready, and you can go right down the line from there.

"That's a pretty good tout right there."

In no small part because of his coming-out last spring at Keeneland, Werner's profile has increased substantially. His success here last year helped him land new clients such as Ken Ramsey, Olin Gentry, Wayne Lyster, and Shell Evans, and he was active at the Keeneland September yearling sales, concentrating mostly on low- to mid-priced horses with win-early pedigrees.

"I try to take what a baby gives me," he said. "We've broken 70 or 80 babies this year, and I've probably already turned out 25 because they just aren't ready. They weren't taking to training early and needed more time.

"Obviously if you see a problem come up, you back off. My opinion is the way a horse is built and the way it hits the ground play a lot into how he'll take to training. People say a 2-year-old isn't ready to do a lot at that age, but I've waited until they're 3 and still had the same problems with [knee] chips. The fact is fast horses are going to have problems."

Since last spring, while campaigning primarily at Lone Star, Arlington, and Fair Grounds, Werner frequently demonstrated that he is not the one-dimensional trainer that his initial success in Kentucky implied. But it would be difficult for him to deny that the niche he carved for himself with 2-year-olds last year earned him a welcome amount of attention - just as he cannot dispute that he is back at Keeneland to win as many baby races as possible.