03/14/2002 1:00AM

Pletcher: I'm not packing rabbit punch


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - He says he didn't do it on purpose.

Even though it looks as if Smooth Jazz became a last-minute entry in the Florida Derby with the apparent intention of adding considerable pace to the race, that just isn't the case, insists trainer Todd Pletcher.

"They paid a lot of money for this horse," said Pletcher, referring to the recent private purchase of Smooth Jazz by owner Michael Tabor and his advisers. "They wouldn't just use him like that, because they think so highly of him."

Smooth Jazz, who will be coupled for wagering purposes in the Florida Derby with another Tabor-Pletcher colt, Nokoma, has had just two career races, both at six furlongs. Formerly trained in Maryland by Tony Dutrow, Smooth Jazz won a January maiden race, then the Feb. 23 Best Turn Stakes, both at Aqueduct.

Pletcher initially said he would run Smooth Jazz in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes on the Saturday undercard, but after consulting with Tabor, they decided to run in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby.

"Basically the thinking is there are a lot of races like the Swale down the road," said Pletcher. "You could probably reel off a hundred of them. But there's only one Kentucky Derby. If we want to get him on that path, then we'd better go ahead and stretch him out now and see what he can do. We can always back up and take a different approach if he shows he doesn't belong."

With all his early speed, Smooth Jazz becomes a potential pain in the flank for Booklet, the colt who led all the way to win the two Florida Derby preps at Gulfstream, the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth. On paper, at least, a Booklet weakened by unrelenting early pressure could set the race up for a closer - a category that Nokoma clearly fits.


"They're obviously going to complement each other's styles," said Pletcher. "But we're going in trying to win with both horses. If Nokoma is the beneficiary of Smooth Jazz setting a fast pace, that's great. And if Smooth Jazz wins on his own merit, that's great, too."

John Ward, trainer of Booklet, said he is not particularly worried about the presence of Smooth Jazz. So did Jorge Chavez, Booklet's rider.

"I don't think it will affect us much if somebody sends a rabbit," said Chavez. "My horse can rate, and he has a big heart."

The strategy of racing stables using a speedy "rabbit" to assist a more capable, stretch-running entrymate is an old one. Frank Whiteley used Hedevar to help set the table for Damascus. Nick Zito used Loach for Strike the Gold. Elliott Walden used Connecting Terms for Victory Gallop.

"We've done it ourselves," said Pletcher.

But at this particular time, the distance limitations of Smooth Jazz are not known, so the concept of his being used strictly as a rabbit for Nokoma just doesn't quite fit, said Pletcher. Still, the trainer believes that Nokoma, who captured an allowance race with a game performance in his latest start, represents his best chance to win Saturday.

"I feel really good about the way Nokoma is coming up to the race," he said. "He's training like a monster. The question obviously is whether he can make up those lengths on Booklet and Harlan's Holiday," both of whom finished more than 11 lengths ahead of him in the Jan. 19 Holy Bull.

If Nokoma rallies to win Saturday, then Tabor and Pletcher almost surely will be bound for the May 4 Kentucky Derby with him, furthering their rich recent histories in Louisville.

Tabor won the 1995 Derby with Thunder Gulch, trained by Pletcher's longtime former boss, D. Wayne Lukas. And in just the last two runnings of the Derby, Pletcher has had a combined six starters - four in 2000, and two in 2001. His best finishes came with Impeachment, third in 2000, and Invisible Ink, second in 2001.

Whether or not Tabor and Pletcher would consider bringing Smooth Jazz to Churchill Downs to "rabbitize" for Nokoma in the Kentucky Derby may depend on what happens Saturday.

"You don't know what'll happen," said Pletcher. "We're going into the race thinking either horse can win."