01/24/2002 1:00AM

Little Lee has upset potential in Forego


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For Louisville residents Billy Hays and Joe Woodard, a passion for racing has blossomed into major involvement in the sport.

Hays, a 43-year-old automobile dealer, has been a horse owner for about 15 years. Woodard, 33, was always enamored with the sport, even attending Churchill Downs on several occasions when he was young with the principal of his grade school. About 12 years ago, Woodard started tinkering with cheap horses before ultimately turning to full-time training in the mid-1990's.

"I brought one of Billy's horses back from a long layoff to win a race at River Downs," said Woodard. "That was the beginning of our working together."

Last Saturday, Hays and Woodard teamed to win the Cincinnati Trophy Stakes at Turfway Park with 19-1 shot Art Fair. This Saturday, the men will seek their second straight stakes upset when Little Lee runs against 10 other older horses in the $50,000 Forego Stakes at the Florence, Ky., track.

Woodard, based at Turfway during the winters and at Trackside in Louisville in the summers, has 26 horses in training, most of them for Hays. Considering their background, it's somewhat unusual they became partners. Hays attended St. Xavier High School and Woodard attended Trinity. The two Catholic high schools are widely known in Kentucky as bitter arch-rivals, with upward of 35,000 fans attending their annual football game each September in Louisville.

Clearly, Hays and Woodard have been able to go well beyond the presumed enmity of such a rivalry to attain success in the game they both enjoy most. One of their stable stars is Little Lee, a 6-year-old Florida-bred gelding by Montbrook, whose career highlight came in September when he won the Marfa Stakes at Turfway as the longest shot in the race.

Since then, Little Lee has lost five in a row, but Woodard is confident the 6 1/2-furlong distance of the Forego will help awaken the gelding. The Marfa also was run at 6 1/2 furlongs.

"For some reason, the difference between six and 6 1/2 furlongs is a big one for him," said Woodard. "We've stretched him out a couple of times since the Marfa, and that went okay. But I think the race Saturday is going to hit him right on the head."

Probably the horse to beat is Personal First, a graded winner who most recently finished a close second in the Dec. 29 Holiday Cheer. Other top contenders include Bet Me Best and Sense of Duty.

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