07/17/2001 11:00PM

Duckhorn won't sneak up on them this time

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Duckhorn's reputation has grown since his last trip to Chicago. When he starts Saturday at Arlington the $400,000 Washington Park Handicap, his odds won't be anywhere near 12-1, as they were when he upset the $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup in June.

Duckhorn's trainer, Pat Byrne, cemented his own reputation several years ago, training champions such as Favorite Trick and Countess Diana, Belmont winner Touch Gold, and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Awesome Again. But after parting company with mega-owner Frank Stronach, Byrne has found top-class horses harder to come by despite support from deep-pocketed owners such as Michael Tabor, who owns Duckhorn, and Robert Sangster.

"This comes down to a numbers game in the end," Byrne said. "I was small then and I've stayed small. It's hard to maintain that level when you don't have 150 horses to choose from. It's a little slower than I'd like now, but I'm not one to rush or get anxious.

"I do still have high-quality clients, and owners on that level will bring you the sort of horses everyone dreams of - eventually."

Most of Byrne's 26 horses are stabled at Churchill now. Besides Duckhorn, Byrne is high on the 2-year-old Pass Rush, who won a Churchill maiden race July 7 by more than six lengths, running six furlongs in 1:09.60. By the first-crop sire Crown Ambassador, Pass Rush is a homebred owned by one of Byrne's newer clients, Swifty Farms. The colt will be pointed for the Ellis Park Juvenile and, if he runs well, the Arlington-Washington Futurity here. "I'm hopeful he could be a Breeders' Cup kind of horse," Byrne said.

Duckhorn, a 4-year-old Not for Love colt Tabor bought privately early last year, has won six of 16 starts, the Gold Cup being his lone graded stakes win. Last month, he finished a solid fourth in the Stephen Foster Handicap.

Duckhorn will try to exploit his advantage - speed - in the Washington Park like he did in the Gold Cup. Duckhorn excels on a clear lead and can maintain a high cruising speed over a distance of ground. Duckorn has won two of three starts at 1 1/4 miles, the Washington Park distance. In his lone loss at the distance, in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, Duckhorn displaced his soft palate and virtually was eased.

Duckhorn, who vans to Chicago Friday, won two races here last year. "We know he likes the track there, and he's been training extremely well," Byrne said. "He's had five weeks between starts, and that should help."

Mark Guidry will ride Duckhorn, though Arlington-based jockey Randy Meier rode him in the Gold Cup.

Duckhorn will face five to seven rivals Saturday, depending upon whether Gander ships in from New York for trainer John Terranova and if the Carl Nafzger-trained Storm Day is entered in the race. Guided Tour, the Stephen Foster winner and third in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, will start as the 116-pound highweight. Also expected to start are A Fleets Dancer, Chicago Six, Milwaukee Brew, and Estio.

Jayaraman's latest

Dr. K.K. Jayaraman's life has not lacked for variety. Born 61 years ago in the southern part of India, Jayaraman worked as a cardiologist after coming to the United States in 1964. Twenty years ago, he bought his first Thoroughbred at auction. Jayaraman tried his hand at training a couple years ago.

"That was okay," he said by phone Wednesday morning, "but I'm not that young. I don't have the energy like the younger people. I did not come from a horse family. There was a lot to learn."

Jayaraman, whose horses have included Grade 1 winner Irish Actor, now leaves the training to others, and the top horse in his stable, Royal Spy, resides in the barn of Cole Norman. Royal Spy, unbeaten in three turf starts, including two recent grass stakes at Lone Star Park, will start as one of the favorites here Sunday in the Grade 2 American Derby. Royal Spy arrived here by van Tuesday afternoon, walked the shed row Wednesday, and will train on Thursday morning.

Jayaraman not only bred Royal Spy, who is by Peteski, but also bred the colt's dam, Caro's Beauty,

"He's just coming around now," said Jayaraman, who is retired. "He may turn out to be a good horse."

Royal Spy will be part of a short field in the American Derby. The status of Baptize, who would be favored, remained up in the air Wednesday. Five others, including Cinema Handicap winner Sligo Bay, are expected to start.