02/02/2005 12:00AM

Saint Liam, Dutrow look ready to roll

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Saint Liam (right) does battle with Ghostzapper in last year's Woodward, winding up second by a neck.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Saint Liam was not among the finalists for an Eclipse Award as champion older horse last year, yet it was he - not Roses in May, not Pleasantly Perfect, not even, in a figurative sense, Smarty Jones - who gave the Horse of the Year, Ghostzapper, the biggest run for his money.

It came in the Woodward Stakes, when Saint Liam doggedly matched Ghostzapper stride for stride for nearly 1 1/8 miles, eventually losing by a neck. The attention, rightly, was focused on Ghostzapper, who was then one race away from the Breeders' Cup Classic. But the race also marked a turning point for Saint Liam.

As his trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr., said this week, "I was happy he showed everyone he belonged."

Saint Liam and Dutrow are a well-matched pair. Both have been percolating just below the sport's upper echelon, and each could have a breakout season in 2005.

For Saint Liam, a 5-year-old son of Saint Ballado, the journey begins Saturday, when he takes on Whitney Handicap winner Roses in May in the Grade 1, $500,000 Donn Handicap here at Gulfstream Park. For Dutrow, it also begins this weekend. Dutrow has action from coast to coast, with Saint Liam in the Donn; the Demoiselle Stakes winner, Sis City, in the Davona Dale at Gulfstream; and the Pennsylvania Derby winner, Love of Money, in the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita.

Dutrow, 45, finished sixth in the nation in purse earnings last year, behind only Todd Pletcher, Bobby Frankel, Steve Asmussen, John Servis, and Bob Baffert, and ahead of such nationally

prominent trainers as Dale Romans, Nick Zito, Bill Mott, and D. Wayne Lukas. Could this be the start of something big?

"I don't want to even think about it," Dutrow said at his Palm Meadows barn this week. "I've got so many good horses. I just want to get them there the right way. If Love of Money, Saint Liam, Sis City, and Offlee Wild have a big year, I'll have a big year. I'd like to keep heading in the right direction. We've gone forward every year. Last year we were sixth. Unbelievable."

Dutrow spent much of last year trying to get Saint Liam to head in the right direction. In race after race, Saint Liam would lug out, most notably in the Woodward, when he leaned on Ghostzapper like a bouncer manning the ropes at a nightclub.

"We went into the Woodward with the intention of winning," Dutrow said. "I was happy with his race, but I was not happy he got out the whole way. It was puzzling. He had been training so good - like he is now. I expected to win the race. I can't say he let me down, but he didn't put his mind into the race."

That was a problem Dutrow battled for months. Saint Liam arrived in his barn in the fall of 2003, after making his first eight starts for trainer Tony Reinstedler. In his first two starts for Dutrow, Saint Liam scored four-length victories in a second-level allowance race at Aqueduct and a third-level allowance race at Gulfstream. Last Feb. 29, in the New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds, Saint Liam faced the 2003 Kentucky Derby winner, Funny Cide, and Peace Rules. He lost to Peace Rules by a head, while finishing nearly three lengths in front of Funny Cide.

"Peace Rules completely wiped him out at the start, then took Ten Most Wanted to the outside fence," Dutrow said of the roughly run race. "Then, in the stretch, my horse saw the starting gate on the outside fence and started focusing on that."

Saint Liam moved on to Oaklawn Park for a rematch with Peace Rules in the Oaklawn Handicap. He faded to finish third, then was off for five months.

"From the time he came out of the gate, he tried to get out," Dutrow said of Saint Liam's race in the Oaklawn Handicap. "I don't know if it was because he was on the inside and had a horse to his outside, but he did it the whole way. Then we stopped on him, because he had feet issues, quarter cracks. We had to regroup. I thought he had turned the corner, and then in the Woodward, he got out the whole way. That was very disappointing.

"Those three races, he didn't focus. I guess he had a good reason, but I couldn't find it."

After the Woodward, Dutrow added blinkers for Saint Liam's next start, the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, and Saint Liam responded with a game victory after getting slammed at the start by Seek Gold. Saint Liam also ran straight through the stretch.

Edgar Prado, who has ridden Saint Liam in his last five starts, said the blinkers helped Saint Liam relax. But Dutrow does not want to read too much into the Clark.

"He was supposed to beat those horses," he said.

The Donn is different story. Roses in May won 5 of 6 starts last year, his lone loss coming when he finished second to Ghostzapper in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Saint Liam will have to run his best to win, but Dutrow thinks he is capable.

"I think we might have seen his best race in the Woodward," Dutrow said. "And you would think that if he doesn't get out in his races, he'll be better. That, I can't wait to see."