09/12/2005 12:00AM

One question: 'What's up, doc?'


Gary Stevens can be forgiven if he passes on the lapin a la cocotte, or leaves the room when somebody pops in a Bugs Bunny cartoon on the big screen. He's had his fill of rabbit for a while.

On Sept. 5, in Woodbine's $282,778 Niagara Handicap at 1 1/2 miles, Stevens and his free-running mount, Provincetown, were badgered on the pace by Emma Wilson and Burst of Fire, one of three horses running for trainer Mark Frostad and Sam-Son Farm. After a quarter in 22.88 seconds and a half in 46.19, it was bye-bye Provincetown.

"After that, there wasn't much point," Stevens said. "I pulled up after five-eighths of a mile."

On Saturday at Belmont Park, in the Man o' War Stakes at 1 1/2 miles, Stevens was part of the pack aboard Angara as they followed Better Talk Now's streaking entrymate, Shake the Bank. When the real race started, after Shake the Bank was through, Angara was not quite good enough to outkick Better Talk Now and the rest of the boys. She finished fifth.

Then in the very next race, an oddly configured Woodward Stakes, Stevens and Whitney Stakes winner Commentator were hounded by a pair of designated "rabbits" named Show Boot and Crafty Player for three-quarters of a mile, after which their Richard Dutrow stablemate, Saint Liam, came along to win as he pleased. Commentator faded to third.

"It had been a long time since I was up against a rabbit, then it happened twice in a week," Stevens noted. "All I can say is that it's great when you're on the rabbit team."

American audiences are not overly exposed to the idea of using up one horse to win a race with another. In Europe, of course, it happens all the time. All the major stables have their own little warrens, occupied by sacrificial lambs. Hold on - rabbits, badgers, hounds, lambs . . . this is starting to sound like a barnyard tour.

Semantics play a part, as well. Americans, when so inclined, use rabbits that are akin to the mechanical tin bunnies mounted on the rail and chased by frothing, riderless greyhounds. Europeans, on the other hand, employ "pacemakers" to lead a field through the early stages of a race and dare the opposition to follow.

Sometimes the result is topsy-turvy, and something like the 2001 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes will happen, in which the Godolphin-owned pacemaker Summoner got so far in front that he could not be caught by his highly regarded stablemate, Noverre.

"The whole idea of pacemakers is, if you don't follow the pacemaker, the pacemaker wins, because we have quality pacemakers," said Godolphin's racing manager, Simon Crisford, in a shining example of his role as company spokesman.

The Woodward looked weird from several angles. For starters, only two trainers saddled the five runners. Saint Liam, the towering favorite owned by William and Suzanne Warren, was accompanied by two other horses trained by Dutrow - Show Boot and Crafty Player - while Nick Zito saddled Saint Liam and Sir Shackleton. The Warrens, it should be noted, own no part of Show Boot or Crafty Player.

"Their plan worked to perfection," Stevens said. "One of them [Show Boot] went off on a fast pace, while the jock on the other one [Rudy Rodriguez on Crafty Player] looked back at me, took back, moved right over next to me and started chirping."

In this case, Stevens was not describing a classic rabbit. Crafty Player was playing the role of a stalking horse. His mission was to rattle Commentator's cage, to heckle and harass, and he succeeded.

"I don't have any hard feelings at all," Stevens said. "It was a strategy [Dutrow] used, and we weren't able to overcome it. It's part of the game.

"Commentator's just a very competitive horse," Stevens added. "He never quits pulling. If I'd have dropped his head after the first eighth he would have gone six furlongs in 1:07 and change."

In the Man o' War, Stevens said the presence of the rabbit "made no difference at all," since Shake the Bank raced so far ahead of the pack down the backstretch. Graham Motion, who trains Better Talk Now and Shake the Bank, suggested otherwise.

"If a horse is that far in front of you only half a mile from home, and they start opening up a little bit, I think the jockeys are going to feel like they're going to maybe move a little prematurely," Motion said. "That's what happened in the Breeders' Cup last year."

In the 2004 Breeders' Cup at Lone Star, Better Talk Now benefited from both a rabbitlike pace set by Star Over the Bay and a nervously early move by Jamie Spencer aboard Powerscourt. Neither scenario is guaranteed this time around, since Star Over the Bay is dead and Spencer has been bounced from Powerscourt. Besides, there is no restriction on running an outclassed entrymate in a Breeders' Cup race, as long as the field does not exceed the 14-horse limit.

"That's certainly something we'll talk about, and we have talked about already," Motion said. "In a race like the Breeders' Cup, with horses coming from everywhere, nine times out of 10 you're going to have a legitimate pace. Our horse is a little older, a little wiser, and a much better racehorse this year. At the same time, he is 2 for 2 with the pacemaker."