12/14/2001 1:00AM

A year later, Van Bebber carries on

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LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. - The one-year anniversary of Steve Van Bebber's death was Wednesday. His widow, Janet, spent the day taking her 4-year-old daughter, Taylor Anne, to visit Santa Claus at Knott's Berry Farm and training her stable of Quarter Horses.

For years, Steve and Janet Van Bebber were a husband and wife training team that ran one of the most successful Quarter Horse operations on the Texas-Louisiana circuit. In December 2000, Van Bebber committed suicide in a motel room in Brenham, Texas.

This year, while dealing with Steve's death, Janet has continued to train 90 horses - and to win.

On Sunday at Los Alamitos, Janet Van Bebber starts Tailor Fit in the $500,000 Champion of Champions over 440 yards, the year's top race for older Quarter Horses. Tailor Fit won the 1999 Champion of Champions, the year that Steve was elected the nation's champion trainer.

Janet Van Bebber flew to California earlier this week after winning two stakes last Saturday at Fair Grounds on Louisiana Champions Day. It was another weekend in a hectic schedule that has her stable ranked among the nation's leaders in earnings this year.

Tailor Fit, who has won three major stakes this year, is the Van Bebber stable star and is a top candidate to win the Champion of Champions.

"If we won, it would mean the world to us for a lot of reasons," she said. "It was something that Steve and I won together. When we didn't get to come last year, it was a disappointment. For me, personally, it would mean a lot."

In 27 years as a trainer, Steve Van Bebber won 1,847 races and was a fixture at racetracks in the South. As the sport grew in the 1990's, so did Steve Van Bebber's reputation. He led the standings at Sam Houston Race Park for each Quarter Horse meeting from 1994-99.

Earlier this year, Janet Van Bebber tied Steve's record for wins at a Sam Houston meeting with 58. "I'm glad we tied the record," she said. "I'm also glad we didn't exceed it."

Janet Van Bebber, 36, was already a horsewomen when she married Steve in 1992. Her father is a racehorse breeder and runs the day-to-day business of a farm in Ledbetter, Texas. Her mother is a show-horse judge. Before she was married, Janet worked as a bloodstock agent.

This year marked the first year she has trained on her own. To have a starter in the Champion of Champions is as significant to a Quarter Horse trainer as having a runner in the Kentucky Derby would be for a Thoroughbred trainer.

"It's been a tough year and the little lady has taken care of herself," said Betty Jane Burlin of Navasota, Texas, who owns Tailor Fit. "Not many people, much less a woman, could juggle that many careers and a child."

Burlin, who owns a real estate company, had horses with Steve Van Bebber for 16 years, beginning at Delta Downs in western Louisiana. His death remains a puzzle to her.

"I still question to this day why he did it," said Burlin, referring to Van Bebber's suicide. "It's not the Van Bebber I knew. It's a heart-sickening thing."

Quarter cracks have plagued the 6-year-old Tailor Fit, a winner of 19 of 31 starts and $976,065. He missed the 2000 Champion of Champions because of foot problems and grabbed a quarter at the start of the Los Alamitos Championship on Sept. 22, when he finished seventh. On Oct. 20, he rebounded to win the MBNA America Challenge Championship at Los Alamitos.

"I think he's really on top of his game," Janet Van Bebber said. "I'm not hesitant to say he's as good as he's ever been. He's about to face the toughest field he's ever faced in his life. There's a whole bunch of reasons I hope he wins."