01/28/2004 12:00AM

Lion Tamer wins in return

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Lion Tamer, runaway winner of the 2003 Hutcheson Stakes, made a triumphant return from a 9 1/2-month layoff Wednesday at Gulfstream Park, posting an easy 2 1/4-length victory over seven overmatched rivals in the $38,000 allowance feature.

Lion Tamer was confidently handled by regular rider John Velazquez throughout the seven-furlong dash. Stalking the early pacesetters while well in hand, Lion Tamer readily forged to command approaching the stretch, edged clear leaving the turn, then increased his advantage while never asked to extend himself.

The victory was the third in as many starts at Gulfstream for Lion Tamer, a son of Will's Way who is owned by Michael Tabor and trained by Todd Pletcher. Lion Tamer returned $3.20, covering the distance in 1:24.76 over a fast track.

"I guess this race was like a workout, as easy as he won," said Pletcher. The trainer said he had told Velazquez that "the first priority was to win and the second was not to beat him up if he didn't have to. He seemed to have plenty left in the tank at the finish and galloped out very strong."

Lion Tamer started only twice last year following his six-length victory in the Grade 2 Hutcheson, finishing fourth in Turfway Park's Lane's End Stakes and a distant sixth in the Grade 1 Blue Grass.

"He tailed off a bit after the Blue Grass. He wasn't training like he had been prior to that, so we decided to give him some time off to mature," said Pletcher. "He never really had any specific physical problems. We just felt he should come back well and have a good year as a 4-year-old."

Pletcher said he had nothing specific in mind at this time for Lion Tamer's next start.

"I wasn't looking at anything else beyond this race," said Pletcher. "I do still think he'll stretch out even though he hasn't shown it yet."

Earlier on the card, Pampered Princess upset Grade 1 winner Nonsuch Bay by a head in an optional claiming race for fillies and mares. Nonsuch Bay, who won Belmont's Acorn Stakes in 2002, was making her first start since Nov. 1 and was using the race as a prep for the Grade 3 Sabin Handicap on Feb. 15.

Nonsuch Bay encountered traffic troubles when she was blocked behind the leaders nearing the eighth pole. She angled to the rail and finished willingly once clear in late stretch. Eibar Coa was a late replacement aboard Nonsuch Bay for Jerry Bailey, who took off both his two mounts on Wednesday's program.

Pampered Princess, third in an overnight stakes in her 2003 finale at Calder, paid $7 as the second choice in a field of six.