10/21/2001 11:00PM

Defending champ can make trainer punchy

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ELMONT, N.Y. - It is already difficult enough to win the Breeders' Cup Classic two years in a row. To be more precise, it has been impossible.

And it's not like some very good horses haven't tried. Skywalker went from first one year to last the next. Unbridled tried to defend his title in 1991 and could do no better than third. Concern was a mild surprise when he won in 1994, but he was up the track at longer odds in '95, when Cigar walked his beat at Belmont Park.

Even Cigar failed to defend, although he went down swinging in 1996 when he was beaten just a nose and a head. Then came Skip Away, who had an easy time in 1997 at Hollywood Park and nothing but grief in '98 at Churchill Downs.

All that is mostly meaningless, except to those deluded souls who think what happened to another bunch of horses a long time ago means anything at all to the fine group who will line up at Belmont on Saturday in the $4 million Classic. Tiznow, the last time anyone checked, is not an avid student of history.

What pleases Tiznow these days is the systematic torture of his trainer, Jay Robbins, and for no apparent reason. This is a nice man, kind to animals, a good husband, and patient with golf partners. His work bringing the inexperienced Tiznow up to the Classic last November at Churchill Downs remains a textbook piece of conditioning, both mental and physical.

But while Tiznow is merely a year older, his recent antics have conspired to age Robbins by about 10. For the last three weeks, Tiznow has been displaying a variety of behaviors, most of them strange, which have included at various times a thorny reluctance to walk, trot, jog, gallop and/or work. Then he'll change his mind.

"I'm thinking maybe I should have someone behind him with a buggy whip, just tickling his back legs to keep him going," Robbins said Monday morning. The trainer was standing still at the time, waiting for Tiznow to absorb the scenery and saunter onto the Belmont main track. "I wonder if Neil used a buggy whip on Fusaichi Pegasus?"

Neil Drysdale laughed at the suggestion.

"That's about the last thing you'd want to use on him," Drysdale said, thinking back upon his flamboyant 2000 Kentucky Derby winner. "He didn't behave badly. He was just a very good-feeling horse. It took us a while, but we discovered that the key to him was just to let him play."

Drysdale was being kind. Fusaichi Pegasus was a four-legged three-ring circus who would stop cold and put on all kinds of entertainment. Then he won the Derby, and all was forgiven. When Fusaichi Pegasus arrived at Churchill Downs later in the year for the Breeders' Cup Classic he still had mischief to burn. It was a quarter crack that kept him from finishing any better than sixth.

"'With a horse like him - or Tiznow - you're training in a fishbowl," Drysdale said. "Anything they do out of the ordinary can cause a panic. What it amounts to really, is that all horses are different. They all have their games."

Shug McGaughey knows just how Jay Robbins feels, and then some. Tiznow, who is stabled in a corner of the McGaughey barn this week, has a long way to go to catch up to the vaudevillian flair of Coronado's Quest, the winner of the 1998 Haskell and Travers. The colt finished fifth in the Classic that year, beaten barely two lengths after leading in the stretch.

"He did some real crazy stuff," McGaughey said. "He'd be walking around and flip in the shed. Sometimes he'd stop at the other side of the gap, so we'd have to get off him. Then you'd take him over there, thinking you had him all straightened out, and something would happen again."

Like when he was 2, in 1997, when McGaughey kept Coronado's Quest out of the stakes mainstream until late in the season. While the cream of the crop was out West for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Coronado's Quest was pointed for the Cowdin Stakes and the Remsen at home in New York.

"I thought everything was good for the Cowdin," McGaughey recalled. "Then he freezes in the paddock and throws the jock. I remember telling [owner] Stuart Janney walking up to our seats that if he didn't get any better we'd have to cut him. But that was out, since he went out and set a track record.

"There's always things you've got to work around," McGaughey added. "But if you've done your proper work, and they still go over there and act crazy, chances are they're trying to tell you something."

There is no better listener than Robbins.

"I think he's just figured out a way to push our buttons," the trainer said. "He's playing with us."

"He worries a lot," McGaughey said with a nod toward Robbins. "But his horse looks great."

That helps. Now, if Robbins can just figure out the new rules of Tiznow's game. He's got 72 hours