05/05/2005 12:00AM

Turf outfit switches focus to Derby

High Fly is the first Kentucky Derby starter in 23 years for owner Charlotte Weber.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It has been 23 years since Live Oak Plantation participated in its one and only Kentucky Derby, finishing second behind Gato del Sol with Laser Light.

Or, as Charlotte Weber, the head of Live Oak, puts it: "When I had a Derby contender before, I was on the front nine. Now I'm on the back nine.''

At age 62, Weber covets a Kentucky Derby trophy as much as anybody. Having been blessed - or cursed, depending on your point of view - with a litany of turf horses the last several years, Weber has made a change in her program in hopes of getting more dirt horses.

Those changes seemed to have paid off. This week, Weber is at Churchill Downs with not only a major player for the Kentucky Derby in High Fly, but also a top-flight contender for Friday's Kentucky Oaks with In the Gold.

"I want to race in the classics, and the big classics are usually on the dirt,'' Weber, heiress to the Campbell Soup Company fortune, said in a recent phone interview from her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. "I was trying to buy more horses that had more dirt pedigree. Some of that has gone on and happened.''

Although High Fly is a homebred, he is an example of the change in philosophy that Weber has instituted. In looking to purchase better-quality broodmares, Weber was advised by her bloodstock manager, Michael Young, to purchase Verbasle, who earned $250,000 and was second to Meadow Star in the Grade 1 Matron.

It was Young's idea to breed Verbasle to Atticus, winner of the Grade 1 Oaklawn Park Handicap and more than $1 million.

"He liked Atticus, and he liked the mare a lot,'' Weber said. "He knew the mare when she was at Three Chimneys and advised me when they dispersed to go and buy her.''

Another part of Weber's program includes performing heart scans on her yearlings.

"I think you can learn a lot,'' Weber said. "[High Fly] had a very good heart scan - A or A-plus. Does that tell me as a yearling, if the conformation maybe is not so great, to still see what he can do? Absolutely. He's a gutsy little guy.''

High Fly was originally sent to trainer Bill Mott in New York. But Mott felt the horse was not physically mature enough to race and sent him back to the farm after less than two weeks in his care. Weber and her staff could not find anything "critically wrong'' with High Fly and sent him to Florida and trainer Bill White.

High Fly won his first two starts at Calder impressively, and Weber started thinking she had something special. Those suspicions were confirmed when High Fly won the Aventura Stakes at Gulfstream by nine lengths.

In the Feb. 5 Holy Bull, High Fly was caught wide on both turns and finished third, two lengths behind Closing Argument. At that time, Weber decided to move the horse from White to Nick Zito, a two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer. In two starts for Zito, High Fly won the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. Both were with Jerry Bailey in the irons.

"I thought I had a pretty special horse and I wanted to go with somebody who went down the road,'' Weber said of the trainer change. "When he had not such a good trip in the Holy Bull, I sort of used that as an excuse. I said I had a really nice horse, I think I needed to go somewhere else.''

Despite his stellar 5-for-6 record and wins in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, High Fly is not getting as much attention as one with those credentials would normally receive. Of course, in 1995 Thunder Gulch won those same two races but was dismissed after finishing fourth in the Blue Grass. He won the Derby, returning $51.

"He certainly knows where the wire is,'' Zito said. "He's an amazing horse, he's a worthy horse, no question. We love our chances with him, too.''

One of the negatives regarding High Fly is that he is trying to win the Derby off a five-week layoff. That hasn't been done since Needles in 1956. Zito, who won the Travers last year with Birdstone off a 12-week layoff, believes the added time will only help both High Fly and Noble Causeway, the Florida Derby runner-up.

"We can't use that as an excuse if they don't make it because I really think the five weeks helps both those horses,'' Zito said

While time may be on High Fly's side, Weber is hoping, win or lose, she doesn't have to wait another 23 years to return to the Kentucky Derby. She is very high on her young horses, some of whom will be unveiled this summer in New York.

"If you're in the business you want to go to the Derby," Weber said. "Then the question is how do you get there? You hope you have the opportunity, and you try to control your variables as much as I could. Do I think I'm going to be there every year? Ideally, I would love to be. Do I think it's going to happen? No.''