01/03/2004 1:00AM

Farish horses here to stay this winter

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - More than a few high-profile stables have called Tampa Bay Downs their winter home - Spendthrift Farm, for example, owned a barn on the backstretch here many years ago. But in those days, many stables treated Tampa Bay Downs as a place to lay up for the winter, to run a few horses and get their youngsters ready for debuts at tracks up north.

In recent years, the policy for distributing stalls has changed, and stabling here for the winter does not mean soaking up some sun and getting some foundation into your horses. It means running them.

That's why it was a pleasant surprise to see that William Farish, one of racing's top owners and breeders and the current U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, would race horses this meeting under trainer Mike Zwiesler. Fans here have seen the green and gold Farish colors in stakes races: Farish has won the Florida Oaks three times - with Sneaky Quiet (1995), Secret Status (2000), and Quick Tip (2001) - and the 1998 Tampa Bay Downs Derby with Parade Ground, who went on to run sixth in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Belmont Stakes.

But those horses shipped in from other tracks. This year, the Farish racing operation has 14 runners stabled here.

Zwiesler worked for Farish's main trainer, Neil Howard, for 20 years. He began training on his own four years ago for Bayard Sharp, an owner-breeder who raced such notables as Dixieland Band and Mississippi Mud. That partnership produced several good runners, including Emery Board, who was third here in the 2001 Florida Oaks, and the stakes winners Shag and Mumbo Jumbo.

In the fall of 2001, Sharp, father of Farish's wife, Sarah, died. Zwiesler said the Farishes wasted little time in letting the trainer know his job was secure.

"Mr. and Mrs. Farish assured me they wanted me to continue to train for them, and I have some for both Mr. and Mrs. Farish here," Zwiesler said. "Mr. Farish is not only a good man to work for, he's a special person, very down-to-earth and easy to be around. He's one of those folks that dispels the notion that all wealthy people are snobs and hard to deal with. I'm very lucky to have owners like these folks."

Zwiesler said he and the Farishes assessed the stock last fall and decided which horses would fit well here.

"I like the surface here," Zwiesler said. "It's not hard on horses like some of the places we've been in past winters, and we've got a mix of seasoned runners and young horses. With all the bad weather last winter we lost a lot of training time [at the Sharp training center in Maryland], so some of our youngsters are just now catching up in their training."

As for the older runners, Zwiesler named British import Marching Band as a horse who could do well here.

"It's a great place to race, and the warm weather's not bad either," he said.