05/01/2005 11:00PM

'Rabbit' Spanish Chestnut out to win it all

Spanish Chestnut works on Sunday, going five furlongs in 1:00.44.

LOUISVILLE - His nickname around the barn is Conejo, which in Spanish means rabbit. The connections of Spanish Chestnut, however, swear it's just a coincidence, a play on the mother's name, Baby Rabbit.

But there are some who believe Spanish Chestnut's presence in Saturday's 131st Kentucky Derby is to act as a rabbit, or pacesetter, for Bandini, who comes from off the pace. More specifically, the belief is that Spanish Chestnut will have enough speed to keep probable Derby favorite Bellamy Road from making an easy lead as he did winning the Wood Memorial.

Both Spanish Chestnut and Bandini are owned by the partnership of Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith. The two horses have different trainers, though. Patrick Biancone trains Spanish Chestnut. Todd Pletcher conditions Bandini.

The connections of Spanish Chestnut scoff at the rabbit theory and say that Spanish Chestnut has earned his way into the race. In fact, Spanish Chestnut won the Grade 2 San Rafael in January and finished third in the Grade 2 Santa Catalina in March. He is coming off two poor races, however, including a sixth-place finish in the Blue Grass.

"Just because Bandini is running has no bearing on it," said Demi O'Byrne, racing manager for Tabor and Smith. "Bandini only came in the picture recently. This horse is more experienced."

Spanish Chestnut set a quick pace in the Blue Grass and Bandini came from off the pace to win by six lengths. That solid victory established Bandini as a top-three betting choice for the Derby.

Biancone has saddled the pacesetter in the last two Kentucky Derbies with Brancusi, who finished last in 2003, and Lion Heart, who finished second last year. Biancone expects Spanish Chestnut to set the early pace, but only because that's his style.

"Talk about the rabbit if you want; that's not my concern," Biancone said. "If he's a rabbit, Lion Heart was a rabbit last year, and Brancusi was a rabbit the year before. Anyway, if he's a rabbit, he's not a rabbit for one horse he's a rabbit for the field. It's not a two-horse race from what I know."

Biancone added that "if Bandini wins, it brings nothing to me or to my staff."

Nick Zito, the trainer of Bellamy Road, doesn't seem overly concerned about Spanish Chestnut being in the race.

"You can't tell a person what to do with his or her property," Zito said.

Zito is hopeful that Bellamy Road is not a need-the-lead type of horse. Zito believes the colt's last two workouts - including a five-furlong move Sunday in 1:00.42 - were good indicators that he will relax.

"I think he will [rate], of course," Zito said.

Biancone said that as early as last October, he viewed Spanish Chestnut as a Derby horse, and he believes there are valid reasons for his two most recent poor efforts. Biancone said that Spanish Chestnut did not handle the off track when he finished sixth in the Lane's End. Biancone said Spanish Chestnut came out of that race with a sore shin, which inhibited his training leading up to the Blue Grass, in which he also finished sixth.

"He was not really ready to go a mile and an eighth," Biancone said. "The horse you will see Saturday will be a better horse than you've seen so far. I told you the same thing last year and my horse was better."

On Sunday, Biancone shipped Spanish Chestnut from Keeneland to Churchill, where he worked five furlongs in 1:00.44 under exercise rider Rodolphe Brisset.

Biancone was pleased with the work because it was more even than some of Spanish Chestnut's previous moves. Biancone said that when Spanish Chestnut would work in a minute, he'd go his opening quarter in 22 seconds and his last three eighths in 38. Sunday, he went close to 12 seconds for each furlong.

"To be honest with you, he's not worked like that for a long, long time," Biancone said.

Biancone has selected Joe Bravo to ride Spanish Chestnut because of the tremendous success they had together last year at Monmouth Park. Bravo rode Lion Heart to victory in the Haskell.