03/14/2003 12:00AM

Domestic Dispute in progress

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The phone is answered at Gary Garber's Solana Beach home by a very pleasant-sounding woman who says her husband is at work and offers the number. Garber himself is pleasant, a successful businessman and inveterate horseplayer who, whether at Santa Anita for morning workouts or afternoon races, always has an impish grin.

Everything seems idyllic for the Garbers. After 39 years of marriage, raising two kids, and surviving a horrifying plane accident, Gary and Diane Garber are about as close as a couple can be. Which is why everyone wants to know how Garber came to name his top 3-year-old colt Domestic Dispute.

"It's not named after anybody in particular," Garber insisted. "But it has sparked a lot of talk. When he first ran, people asked me, 'Does your wife know the name of your horse?'

"Any married couple can relate to it. Bob and Jill," Garber said, referring to his trainer, Bob Baffert, and Baffert's wife, "thought it was named after them. My mom and dad thought it was named after them. Everybody I know thinks it's named after them. It's not. It was done in jest. The funny thing is, when I put in for names for my horses, it seems that three-quarters of the names are already taken. This was the first name I put in for this colt."

Domestic Dispute has risen to the top of the current Kentucky Derby heap, a position he can solidify with a victory in Sunday's $250,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. He has reached the top by gradually improving, and seeing those ranked above him in recent weeks fail in their most recent starts, a fate that Garber and Baffert hope Domestic Dispute can avoid on Sunday.

"He's stepping it up," Baffert said. "He's got a lot of speed, but you've got to ride him carefully. You can't move on him until you're ready.

"He's a stalker," Baffert said. "He's got a lot of acceleration."

Domestic Dispute comes off a three-length victory in the Santa Catalina Stakes on Jan. 18. That was his second victory in seven starts. In his race before that, he crossed the wire third in the Hollywood Futurity, trailing Toccet and Kafwain. He was placed second through the disqualification of Kafwain.

Domestic Dispute, a son of Unbridled's Song, was bred by Garber on the advice of consultant Brian Cross. He is out of the mare Majestical Moment, a daughter of Magesterial whom Garber raced and then kept to breed, in part because she won her debut and paid $66, with Garber having wagered a bit. She produced two foals - the second being Domestic Dispute - before perishing in a barn fire in Kentucky two and a half years ago.

This is the second high-profile colt Garber has owned in recent years. Garber owned Flame Thrower, who won the Norfolk Stakes and Del Mar Futurity as a 2-year-old in 2000. He, however, was injured late in his 2-year-old season, however, and though he returned for a brief 3-year-old campaign, he missed all the Triple Crown races.

Flame Thrower's name was easy to divine. He was a flashy chestnut colt with a gorgeous flaxen mane that looked like it was on fire when the sun hit it just right. Jerry Bailey rode Flame Thrower to a thrilling Del Mar Futurity victory, and since Garber is a big admirer of Bailey, the six-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey was the first choice to ride Domestic Dispute when his previous rider, David Flores, opted to ride Atswhatimtalknbout in the San Felipe.

"Bailey has a knack for always being in the right place," Garber said. "He might not win, but he puts horses in a position to win."

Garber's business success has put him in position to win, too. His Los Angeles-based company, Super Vent Packaging, manufactures plastic bags and containers for fruits and vegetables. Next time you wrap a head of lettuce in a bag at the supermarket, think of him. He has a small stable of horses. Just three are currently racing. Add in his mares and young horses, and Garber estimates he has 15 to 20 horses.

Garber is superstitious. Maybe you would be too if a few people seated next to you were sucked out of a 747 because of a cargo door explosion, which the Garbers survived near Hawaii in 1990. When Flame Thrower won his debut at Del Mar in 2000, Garber was wearing a casual print shirt. He wore the shirt in every subsequent start, until the colt lost.

When Domestic Dispute won the Santa Catalina, Garber was casually dressed, wearing a T-shirt. He's much more comfortable hanging out with the regulars in the box seats than the suit-and-tie crowd of the director's room. Baffert asked Garber to put on something else this weekend, but there's no guarantee of that.

"If he does, and the horse gets beat," Baffert said, "he'll go back to the T-shirt."