04/09/2003 12:00AM

Rare claim may turn into rare opportunity

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Kissin Saint, claimed for $50,000 by trainer Lisa Lewis on behalf of owners Peter Karches and Michael Rankowitz in January, will take an enormous step on Saturday when he makes his stakes debut in the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

A strong performance in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial could land Kissin Saint, a Kissin Kris colt who is 2 for 2 since being claimed, in the Kentucky Derby on May 3.

Although Lewis felt confident she was getting a good horse, visions of the Triple Crown weren't dancing around her head when she signed the claim slip for Kissin Saint.

Lewis, 34, was tremendously impressed with Kissin Saint's career debut, which came on a rainy December afternoon at Aqueduct for trainer Greg Martin and owner-breeder John Franks. Lewis watched Kissin Saint come from far back to finish third, beaten 2 3/4 lengths for the win in a $30,000 maiden claimer at six furlongs. After that race, the rest of the card was canceled because of poor track conditions.

"He made up so much ground on that muddy track and then galloped out by every one," Lewis said. "He gave me a real strong feeling: I wanted that horse."

The tricky part was finding someone to claim Kissin Saint, who earned a meager Beyer Speed Figure of 39. Lewis, who rarely claims horses, said Kissin Saint's low Beyer put off many of her clients.

It wasn't until the day of Kissin Saint's next race on Jan. 12 that Lewis found a buyer in Karches and his former business associate Rankowitz.

Lewis, who has trained horses for Karches for about three years, said she called him on the day of the race "and he didn't hesitate. He said, 'Let's do it. I know this is something you don't usually do.' "

Karches, 51, had never claimed a horse in seven years as an owner.

"I had confidence in Lisa's ability to judge a horse," Karches said.

Kissin Saint won by 14 lengths the day he was claimed. The race was his first two-turn start, and he earned a Beyer Figure of 95.

Martin, who was "shocked" the horse was claimed, said, "I didn't want to lose him, but he did surprise me that day."

In his first race for his new connections, on Feb. 8, Kissin Saint came from off the pace and won a first-level allowance race by three-quarters of a length. In his next start, on March 28, Kissin Saint, ridden for the first time by Richard Migliore, raced closer to the pace in a 1 1/8-mile race and won by a length. What impressed Lewis most about the colt's latest effort was that Kissin Saint, who earned a career-best Beyer of 98, was coming off a seven-week layoff and had missed training time because of a leg infection.

Karches, retired from his position as president and COO at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Institutional Securities Group, is a vice-chairman of the New York Racing Association. Kissin Saint isn't the only Triple Crown hopeful he owns. Karches and Catherine Wills are partners in Dynever, who won last Saturday's Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream Park in his third career start.

Karches, who has 40 horses in training - 10 with Lewis and 30 with Christophe Clement - said his hope is to make at least one of the Triple Crown races with Kissin Saint or Dynever. Trained by Clement, Dynever is under consideration for the Lone Star Derby on May 10 and then the Belmont Stakes on June 7.

Regardless of what happens in the Wood, Karches said Kissin Saint has already exceeded his expectations.

"When you claim a horse for $50,000 in the dead of winter at Aqueduct, you don't expect to get a whole lot," Karches said. "The reasons we are running in the Wood is that he has won at the distance and over the track. Are we being aggressive? Yes. But we sure are having a whole lot of fun."

Lewis, who has trained graded stakes winners American Royale, Capsized, and Fortunate Faith, is just thrilled to have found a buyer for Kissin Saint.

"No matter what happens Saturday, he will still be a good horse," Lewis said. "He doesn't have a downside to him. I feel lucky that it worked out."