03/20/2003 12:00AM

Lion Tamer going after big game

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FLORENCE, Ky. - Every year, Turfway Park officials cross their fingers in the hope that a so-called big-name starter will lend credibility to its signature race, which, after years of name-changing, has settled into being called the Lane's End Stakes this year.

A purse of $500,000 - the value of the Lane's End - usually is sufficient to attract a horse or two whose names are familiar to knowledgeable horseplayers, and that is the case again for 2003. Lion Tamer, as the winner of the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream in his last start, brings marquee value coveted by any track.

Yet what remains to be seen is whether Lion Tamer can live up to top billing in the Lane's End. Although Lion Tamer has looked terrific and has shown highly effective speed in winning three of four career starts, the Lane's End will be his first race beyond seven furlongs. As much as anyone, trainer Todd Pletcher is eager to see how Lion Tamer fares.

"He's a pretty kind horse," Pletcher said. "If somebody else wants the lead, I don't think that's going to affect him. Like a lot of other people, I'm pretty interested in how he's going to handle the two turns and the mile and an eighth. I'm actually pretty optimistic that it's within his capabilities."

Two years ago, Pletcher won the Lane's End (then known as the Spiral) with Balto Star, who romped to a record 12 3/4-length triumph. Clearly, Pletcher would accept a victory by any margin Saturday.

If Lion Tamer wins, or at least runs extremely well in defeat, Pletcher said he probably would be inclined to run the colt next in the May 3 Kentucky Derby without another prep race.

"There's no secret formula to winning the Kentucky Derby," said Pletcher, who has run seven horses in the last three runnings of the Derby. "There's nothing that says you have to run two, three, or four weeks out. In the case of this particular horse, he's probably better off with more time between his races."

Lion Tamer, by Will's Way, was purchased earlier this year by Michael Tabor from another of Pletcher's clients, John Fort. Pletcher has repeatedly called Lion Tamer "finely made" and a horse who "looks more like a filly than a colt.

"I thought running in the Turfway race made more sense than hooking Empire Maker and Trust N Luck," in the Florida Derby last weekend, said Pletcher. "And I think it makes sense that if he runs well Saturday, we may start thinking Derby with nothing in between.