03/05/2003 1:00AM

Forced to the forefront


SUNLAND PARK, N.M. - Janet Bowers saddled her first winner as a trainer on Sunday, but that doesn't make her a greenhorn. Bowers, 45, has been involved in the sport for two decades, albeit behind the scenes.

She and her husband, Robert, own an all-purpose breeding, boarding, and training facility near Albuquerque, N.M., where Janet's first winner, Spirit de Azure, was bred and foaled.

On Thanksgiving Day of last year, the Bowerses' lives changed forever when Robert, age 78, suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving the responsibilities of both the racing and the ranch on Janet's shoulders.

"Well, it was certainly not a happy Thanksgiving, I can tell you that," Janet said. "Obviously, a lot has been heaped on my shoulders. I'm holding up pretty well, though. We have cut our ontrack operation to only six head and are getting through this as best we can."

All this comes at a time when the Bowerses' fortunes are looking good. New Mexico racing and breeding has been on the upswing since the introduction of slots in 1999. Before that, owning horses in the state was merely an expensive hobby.

Motivated by the possibility of slots money, the Bowerses' were looking for a young stallion to replace Acoustical, whom they had stood for years but who was aging. It was at about that time that Robert Bowers got a tip from a friend that Wayne Lukas had a good 2-year-old by Gone West who had suffered an injury in his second start at Santa Anita. Robert flew to California to investigate, a deal was struck, and the Bowers had their stallion prospect. His name is Ghost Ranch.

Ghost Ranch has quickly become a hot commodity in New Mexico breeding circles. His first foals are now 4-year-olds, among them Spirit de Azure and Espeedytoo, who was champion statebred 3-year-old filly last season and who has won 10 of 24 career starts and earned $340,564.

But Ghost Ranch's career is going to be affected by Robert Bowers' stroke as well.

"This year we will only be able to breed him to our own mares and a few other selected ones. There is only so much time," Janet said.