11/20/2001 1:00AM

Stewart not shy about defeating mentor

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The thrill of winning his first Breeders' Cup race was so intense, said Dallas Stewart, that he "didn't even think about, before or after," at whose expense the victory came.

It came at the direct expense of D. Wayne Lukas, his boss for 11 years.

The race was the $2 million BC Distaff on Oct. 27 at Belmont Park. Spain, the defending champion, momentarily appeared to be a runaway winner for Lukas, but then Unbridled Elaine, trained by Stewart, came streaking from left field to snatch victory by a head.

Early this week, as the rematch of Unbridled Elaine and Spain in the Falls City Handicap Thursday at Churchill Downs drew near, each man smiled when the other was mentioned. Stewart recalled a recent phone conversation he had with Lukas.

"He didn't say anything about that last race," said Stewart. "But he did say he was going to whup us this time."

"I was kidding him," said Lukas. "But seriously, I thought our filly ran an unbelievably good race. I think we'll get them with another good effort. She sure is training well."

Stewart was at Lukas's side during many of his mentor's major accomplishments, including Kentucky Derby wins with Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch, and Grindstone, and multiple wins in the Preakness, Belmont, and Breeders' Cup. Stewart went out on his own in 1997, and his already-powerful stable has taken on much the same aura as the one he left: well-decorated barns, white bridles, early mornings, busy afternoons, fast and expensive horses, a deep roster of clients.

While Stewart and Lukas often find themselves in adversarial positions because their horses so often race against each other, they often talk as if little has changed between them.

"Wayne's Wayne," said Stewart. "He's very competitive. His horses always run big in the big races, like Spain in the Breeders' Cup. When you sit down to handicap a big race like the one Thursday, you've got to figure him right in there."

That is not to say that Stewart is ready to concede a thing. He said that Unbridled Elaine has flourished since her Breeders' Cup win, and although he waited until last week to formally declare her a starter for the Falls City, he suspected all along that she was ready to wheel back with another top effort.

"We're as ready as we were last time," he said.

Moreover, a potential Eclipse Award is on the line. Unbridled Elaine is one of the logical candidates for the 3-year-old filly award. Stewart is keenly aware that an impressive Falls City victory has the potential to win over enough voters to make Unbridled Elaine a champion.

Ironically, Stewart was an outsider in the Unbridled Elaine camp for much of this year. Although he trained her to the brink of stardom at 2, and nursed her back to health at Fair Grounds all winter before winning a comeback race with her in May, he was relieved of his training duties by the filly's tempestuous owner, Roger Devenport, in late June.

Repeated phone calls for this story to Devenport, who lives in Lexington, Ky., went unanswered. At age 82, he reportedly is in ill health. Stewart said he has not seen Devenport in "maybe a year. I only talk on the phone with him." Devenport did not attend the Breeders' Cup, nor will he be here Thursday.

Stewart lost Unbridled Elaine to veteran trainer Dave Vance, who won two of four starts with her but then lost her back to Stewart one week before the Breeders' Cup. Vance was stunned and bitterly disappointed, saying he was notified of the change by phone by Devenport's wife, Betty.

Stewart shrugs his shoulders when talking about the flip-flop, saying the return of Unbridled Elaine was like getting back a long-lost love. "Nobody said anything when [Vance] won the Iowa Oaks eight days after he got her from me," said Stewart. "This can be a strange business."

It's so strange, in fact, that Vance has a chance to prevent Unbridled Elaine from winning the Falls City - and the Eclipse. Vance trains Falls City longshot Caressing, the 2-year-old filly Eclipse champion of last year.

Caressing "has always been our favorite," Vance said dryly.

The many subplots to the 2001 saga of Unbridled Elaine will come to a dramatic end Thursday. Stewart said he plans to give the filly a rest when he heads to the four-month meet at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where the first major race in the division is the Chou Croute in February.

Until then, memories of the Falls City will have to do for Stewart, a New Orleans native. "I'd love to go home with a win behind us," he said.