07/31/2001 11:00PM

You've come a long way, Roma baby

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - At the Ocala Breeders' Sale two years ago, a bay colt by Rubiano out of While Rome Burns was just another hip number. At this year's sale, a picture of the colt is featured on the back cover of the catalog.

Though modestly bred, Burning Roma has come a long way, and now he has the opportunity to prove he belongs with the best 3-year-olds in the country when he faces Point Given in Sunday's Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. To say that he has been an overachiever based on pedigree and expectations would be an understatement. Burning Roma, who is trained by Tony Dutrow, has earned more than $600,000 and has won eight of 11 career starts.

While Rome Burns, a mare who started 53 times, was purchased by Bill Farish of Lane's End Farm in 1995 while she was in foal to Fly So Free. The dam had a few decent foals, but none nearly as successful as the one from her 1998 breeding to Rubiano, who stands for $10,000 at the Kentucky farm, owned by his father, Will Farish.

"Rubiano matched physically well with her," said Farish. "We were putting some speed into the mare.

"He's been an incredible surprise," he said. "If I had known he would turn out like this, I wouldn't have sold him. But it has been great keeping close track of him through Tony [Dutrow]."

Farish sold the foal as a weanling for $50,000, and the colt soon popped up as a yearling at the Ocala Breeders' Sale. Harold Queen, who has been in the industry since the early 1960's, purchased the yearling for $90,000. Queen then offered him at the Fasig-Tipton select sale at Calder in February as a 2-year-old, with the intent of selling him for $150,000. Things didn't work out exactly as planned.

In the public workout for the auctioneers, Burning Roma didn't work as well as expected. "The exercise rider was trying to work him too fast," said Queen, "and the colt was scrambling and looked terrible."

Burning Roma was not bid up to the price Queen wanted, and he had to bid back for him at $40,000. It was the best thing that could have happened for Queen.

Burning Roma won the Grade 1 Futurity at Belmont as a 2-year-old and recently captured the Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth. Queen, 65, has had many horses who have earned between $200,000 and $400,000, but Burning Roma is the kind of horse that owners dream about, and he is by far the best horse Queen has ever owned.

Queen, a West Virginian, got his start in racing when he purchased a farm in Lodi, Ohio, 37 years ago. He has real estate interests in Cleveland and owns a data company in Pittsburgh but has lived for the last 24 years in Clearwater, Fla. By his own account, he has had to work hard in the Thoroughbred industry, but the effort has been well worth it.

When he sent Burning Roma to Dutrow in Maryland, Queen sat back and allowed the trainer to mold the colt. "Tony called me before he was running for the first time, and said he was a very, very nice horse," Queen said from Florida. "When I send a horse to the trainer, they make the decisions. Only one person can train a horse successfully."

Burning Roma, a smallish colt with a compact stride, won three of five starts as a 2-year-old, including a fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at 41-1. When his 3-year-old campaign came around, his connections decided not to push him for the grueling tests of the Triple Crown. He dominated lesser competition in ungraded stakes, and rang up five wins in six starts. Queen defends the decision to avoid - until now - the best horses in the division.

"To get a horse ready to run a mile and one quarter, you have to crank him down and train him hard," he said. "If you do that, the horse usually doesn't last throughout the year.

"I would like to keep the horse going until the end of his 4-year-old year. In my personal opinion, what's wrong with the industry is that there are no heroes out there. Horses are short-lived. You don't get big crowds like you used to."

A big crowd, probably more than 40,000, will be there Sunday, and Queen, who said that he doesn't go to the races a lot to see his horses run, will be in attendance.

Most of the fans will come to see division leader Point Given. Queen will come to see his prized horse's biggest test to date - and his chance to pull off a great upset.