02/28/2002 1:00AM

Tabianka takes a liking to New Orleans


NEW ORLEANS - It has happened before. A turf horse comes to New Orleans for the winter and suddenly gets good. Tabianka in fact has never been better, and she has a legitimate chance to win the $150,000 Bayou Breeders' Cup Handicap on Saturday at Fair Grounds.

That couldn't have been true just three months ago. Tabianka was mired in her second allowance condition, finally clearing it by a neck against a weak field at Keeneland. She was fourth and fifth in two subsequent starts at Churchill, then came to Fair Grounds and missed by a neck at 62-1 in the $75,000 Sixty Sails Handicap.

Any thoughts that her race that day was a fluke were erased when Tabianka scored a comfortable half-length win over a sharp filly named Rosthern in a Feb. 4 allowance race here. "I don't think she had to work too hard that day," said Bill Denzik, trainer Carl Nafzger's Fair Grounds-based assistant who has overseen the rise of Tabianka.

Tabianka moved from trainer Bill Mott's barn to Nafzger's when she came to New Orleans. "We haven't done anything much different with her," Denzik said.

But maybe the racetrack here has. Turf horses can be particular about the dirt tracks they train on every morning, and Denzik said he's noted improvement in Tabianka's day-to-day condition over the course of this meet. "She used to have kind of a funky way of going," he said. "But now she seems smooth to me. You've got to think she's sitting on a top effort."

Gerard Melancon, Tabianka's rider, told Denzik that Tabianka felt great in her last work for the Bayou BC.

Histoire Sainte, the mare who beat Tabianka in the Sixty Sails and a Fair Grounds-lover herself, is out of the Bayou BC with an injury, but the field still is solid. Sitka has shipped in from Florida for a stab at a stakes win, while Lady of Peace tries to turn the tables on Tabianka, who finished one place and less than two lengths ahead of her in the Sixty Sails.

"There were 13 horses in that race," pointed out Frank "Bobby" Springer, Lady of Peace's trainer. "She looped the field on the turn in order to stay out of trouble, and she still only got beat a couple lengths."

Rain was forecast for both Friday and Saturday, and the Bayou BC could well be rained off turf. Denzik said there was a good chance Tabianka would stay in the race if it's run on dirt, and Springer will enter Pretty Gale, a two-time winner on muddy tracks at this meet, in case the race comes off turf.

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