04/09/2003 11:00PM

Tabor banks on trio to make Derby

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Michael Tabor is one of the blessed few, a man fortunate enough to have smelled Kentucky Derby roses in his lifetime.

Tabor won the 1995 Kentucky Derby with his first Derby starter, Thunder Gulch, and like anyone else who has lived through such an experience, he would dearly love to win the race again. Demi O'Byrne, the highly prominent bloodstock agent who serves as Tabor's primary consultant, jokingly says the pursuit for another Derby win is a "diseased" quest, yet one that is easily understood by anyone who has spent an appreciable amount of time in the racing industry.

"Of course we're looking for another Kentucky Derby," O'Byrne said, pronouncing the word "Darby" in his familiar Irish brogue.

Since Thunder Gulch, Tabor has campaigned, either alone or in partnership, an enviable number of stars, including Entrepreneur, Desert King, Marlin, King of Kings, Montjeu, Left Bank, High Chaparral, Giant's Causeway, and Johannesburg. But most of those horses raced primarily overseas, and although he has had six Derby starters since 1995, Tabor has not come close to winning another Derby. A seventh-place finish in the 2001 Derby for A P Valentine, whom he co-owned with Rick Pitino's Ol Memorial Stable, is the best a Tabor horse has done since Thunder Gulch.

With the 129th Derby just around the corner, Tabor and O'Byrne are hoping things will pan out differently this time. At this relatively late juncture, Tabor has three legitimate Derby prospects: Aristocat, who runs late Saturday afternoon in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, and Lion Tamer and Brancusi, who will run about 30 minutes earlier in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

O'Byrne said Thursday following the Blue Grass post position draw that "we'd love to have all three perform well" and earn Derby berths, but conceded that he and Tabor would gladly accept one solid contender after the dust settles from all the major racing action Saturday.

Lion Tamer, like Aristocat, is trained by Todd Pletcher, the longtime former assistant to Thunder Gulch's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas. Brancusi is trained by Patrick Biancone, a 50-year-old Frenchman who trained All Along, the 1983 Horse of the Year.

Tabor, a British-born 61-year-old who made a fortune in offtrack betting shops in his homeland, purchased Lion Tamer this winter after the colt won an entry-level allowance race at Gulfstream Park. Lion Tamer posted an impressive six-length victory in the Hutcheson Stakes in his first start for Tabor, but in his next race, his first around two turns, he finished fourth in the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park.

In the Lane's End aftermath, Pletcher was almost immediately willing to give Lion Tamer another chance. He kept the colt in training in Kentucky with the thought of running him in one of the final major Derby preps, ultimately settling on the Blue Grass.

"I don't think his race at Turfway was as bad as it seems," Pletcher said Thursday. "I've still got confidence in him. We're like a lot of other folks in this position - we really need to step up Saturday."

Likewise, Brancusi, who campaigned this winter in California, must step up in the Blue Grass. Brancusi was ignored at 48-1 in his last race, the March 16 San Felipe Stakes, but outran bettors' expectations when beaten just three-quarters of a length by Buddy Gil and Atswhatimtalknbout. The San Felipe marked his first start after he captured a Feb. 15 maiden race at Santa Anita.

Biancone was granted permission by Keeneland officials to train Brancusi over the turf course between races Thursday. The trainer said nothing should be read into that move other than he preferred to avoid having the colt train over a sloppy main track another day.

A more caustic observer, however, might interpret the unusual midweek switch to grass as a way to ease Brancusi into a turf career if he runs poorly Saturday. Of course, that is not the preferred result - the boss wants every chance he can get at winning another Derby.