02/20/2004 12:00AM

Owning gives Brunacini a rush

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George Brunacini, the breeder of 2003 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies third-place finisher Victory U. S. A., is now becoming known as a successful owner. This week alone, he has won two races at Turfway Park.

Thisgirldontlaugh and Mariaworth won races for him at Turfway on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. Although the races were not prestigious stakes, or even allowances, the wins provided Brunacini with a thrill.

It was this racetrack thrill that Brunacini lacked for much of his first 20 years of involvement with Thoroughbreds. He was content to breed and sell, largely avoiding owning racehorses.

Eventually, that focus shifted. After dabbling in horse ownership with a few runners, he has expanded his operation in recent years. He attributes this largely to the excitement of owning Grey Beard, who was briefly on the Kentucky Derby trail in 2002.

"I got Derby fever," Brunacini, 58, said. "There was no turning back."

As is the case for so many other horses, the Derby bubble burst for Grey Beard. He finished seventh in the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth in 2002 and is in the midst of a two-year losing skid.

Nevertheless, the excitement of owning a promising 3-year-old encouraged Brunacini to own more racehorses. He now has 19 horses in training at The Thoroughbred Center in Lexington, Ky., plus about 15 more racing prospects at his Bona Terra Farm in Georgetown, Ky. He also has 40 broodmares based there.

Beyond running horses who may have gone unsold at auctions, Brunacini's goal is to "try to make a broodmare band, racing mostly fillies."

Emilie Fojan (pronounced E-meal-ya Fo-yan) trains these runners for Brunacini in Kentucky. A native of Austria, Fojan came to America in 1980 and has spent much of her time here breaking and preparing young horses for the racetrack.

After "crying every time one would leave" to join another trainer, she welcomed the opportunity to train for Brunacini. Of training horses, Fojan says, "It's more love than work."

More so than many Kentucky owners and trainers, Brunacini and Fojan have taken advantage of the slots-enhanced purses at Mountaineer in West Virginia, regularly shipping their horses there to compete.

By stabling horses at The Thoroughbred Center, they are not under pressure to race exclusively at one track and can shop for the best races for their horses, wherever that might be.

One day, Brunacini says he hopes to see slots revitalize the racing industry in Kentucky, as it has in West Virginia and in his home state of New Mexico, which he left in the late 1990's. Otherwise, "I may have to go back," he joked.

Bejarano has a lock on standings

Jockeys Jason Lumpkins and Rodney Prescott each won a pair of races Thursday evening, inching away from a pack of riders chasing Rafael Bejarano in the jockey standings.

With about a month and a half remaining in the Turfway meet, Bejarano holds a commanding lead in the rider standings. His 72 winners this year at Turfway give him a 51-win edge over Lumpkins (21 winners). Prescott (16) sits third and is followed by Tony D'Amico (15) in fourth and the injured Mark Johnson (14) in fifth.

The race for leading trainer is more competitive. Kim Hammond (13 winners) holds a narrow lead over Greg Foley and Joe Cain, each of whom has trained 12 winners.