03/07/2002 1:00AM

Tabor adds another ace to his hand

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Even before he won the 1995 Kentucky Derby with Thunder Gulch, Michael Tabor held that classic in high regard. Since the memorable victory, however, Tabor's appreciation of the Derby knows few bounds. Although surrounded by legitimate Derby prospects such as Johannesburg, Nokoma, and Mayakovsky, Tabor is once again in the news with the private purchase of the undefeated Smooth Jazz.

A Storm Boot colt, now trained by Todd Pletcher, Smooth Jazz won his maiden in mid-January at Aqueduct and came back to win the Best Turn Stakes, impressive in both appearances. There are no immediate plans for him until Pletcher has had a chance to know the colt and determine what he needs. You can be sure you will see him in some form of the preparation drama that precedes the Triple Crown campaign.

Nokoma, by Pulpit, was second last fall in Aqueduct's nine-furlong Remsen. He disappointed in the Holy Bull but made amends recently with an eye-catching finish in allowance company. Pletcher will run him in the $1 million Florida Derby next Saturday.

"That is a big step forward," Tabor noted, "but it is time to find out how much class he has. He showed considerable gameness in his recent win at Gulfstream and we're encouraged."

Mayakovsky raced well at Saratoga last summer but was sidelined by sore shins. He has trained well in California in recent months and is scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in Aqueduct's Gotham Mile on March 17. Mayakovsky, by Matty G., is trained by Patrick Biancone.

Johannesburg, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old champion, is training nicely in Ireland for Aiden O'Brien. He is expected to have his first start of the season in the seven-furlong Gladness Stakes at The Curragh on April 7. Some have questioned whether Johannesburg will come to Louisville this spring, but Tabor said that he and his partner, John Magnier of Coolmore Stud, are committed to the Kentucky Derby.

Hook and Ladder flourishes in Florida

Hook and Ladder, who won the $200,000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Sprint Championship last winter, will be back Saturday in an attempt to win it again, and looks very much the one to beat. The 5-year-old Hook and Ladder, owned by Mary and Chester Broman Sr., was a rousing winner of the Mr. Prospector Handicap here in January and has trained well in the interim for John Kimmel.

"I have him up in Payson Park near Palm Beach," Kimmel said. "It is a very kind surface on the track there and he appreciates it with his problems. He ran well here last winter and it's been the same this season. He's never been beaten at Gulfstream."

In the fall of his 3-year-old season, after running in the Jerome Mile, Hook and Ladder developed a quarter-crack which ended his campaign. Once he began training a`t` Payson Park, he regained his best form and won three races in three attempts. The quarter-crack trouble returned last spring in New York but in Saratoga, where Hook and Ladder trained on the deep and safe Oklahoma training track, his form returned and he was a good second to Delaware Township in the Forest Hills.

Hook and Ladder has good speed but can rate behind horses and finishes well. Saturday's feature has a competitive field but beating the favorite looks like a lost cause.