10/03/2002 12:00AM

Avanzado finds New York the land of opportunity

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Avanzado, a winner of back-to-back races at Del Mar, will make his East Coast debut in Sunday's $250,000 Forest Hills Handicap.

The Grade 2 Forest Hills will be run at six furlongs on Belmont's main track.

Avanzado, trained by Doug O'Neill, arrived at Belmont earlier in the week from Hollywood Park.

Avanzado was running in Argentina in the spring when owner Mike Cooper, on the advice of bloodstock agent and former trainer John Fulton, privately purchased the horse.

O'Neill said Avanzado was sick after he arrived from South America, where he had finished third in a Group 1 race in April. When he recovered, O'Neill put Avanzado into serious training and liked what he saw, but the trainer admitted he was surprised at how well Avanzado ran in his first race.

The horse set a pressured pace and won an optional claimer at Del Mar on Aug. 18, covering six furlongs in 1:08.93 after blazing through a first quarter in 21.80 seconds. Avanzado earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 111 for the effort.

"He had worked really well out of the gate, but I wasn't sure what to expect off his Argentina form," O'Neill said.

Proving that his first win was not a fluke, Avanzado won the restricted Pirates Bounty in his next start.

O'Neill said one of the reasons he didn't keep Avanzado at home to run in Saturday's Ancient Title Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita is because the horse is not Breeders' Cup nominated and can run for more money in New York. Tyler Baze, who won the Eclipse Award as the country's top apprentice in 2000, has the mount on Avanzado. It will be Baze's first mount in New York.

If he starts, Squirtle Squirt, last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint winner, is the likely favorite in the Forest Hills. Squirtle Squirt is not expected to run if a deal to sell the horse is completed before the race.

Among the expected starters are Say Florida Sandy, Dash for Daylight, Esteemed Friend, and Sunray Spirit. True Direction, who was entered in Saturday's $150,000 Gallant Bob at Philadelphia Park, is also expected to enter the Forest Hills.

Ariel Smith returning to New York

Ariel Smith, the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice of 1999, will return to New York to ride on a regular basis, according to agent Scott Weiss, who will handle his book.

Smith will not be eligible to ride until Oct. 17, as he is currently serving a 27-day suspension for careless riding and his involvement in a jockeys' room brawl at Calder on Sept. 16.

Smith, who began his career in the fall of 1998, came to New York in the winter of 1999 and enjoyed instant success. He was the third-leading rider during the inner track meet that year and parlayed that success into an Eclipse Award.

His career as a journeyman never quite took off, due primarily to chronic knee problems and that he hasn't settled in one place. He has bounced around among California, Florida, and New York.

Two triple-digit winners Thursday

A pair of first-time starters won at triple-digit mutuels Thursday, making for one happy pick three player in Ohio.

Doubtful Diva, trained by Finger Lakes-based John Progno, won a seven-furlong maiden race for New York-breds, returning $100.50 to win. Two races later, Meadow Belle won a one-mile maiden turf race and returned $127. In between, Royal Affirmed ($12.60) speed-popped a field of entry-level turf runners.

The winning pick-three combination (8-7-5) paid $98,913. Since the lone winning ticket was purchased for $1, the payoff was $49,456.50. According to the New York Racing Association mutuel department, the ticket was purchased through the Thistledown hub.

Velazquez takes off mounts

Jockey John Velazquez, who was unseated from his mount, Kingsland, in the gate during Wednesday's eighth race, took off his seven scheduled mounts on Thursday. Velazquez was still sore from the spill, according to his agent, Angel Cordero. Velazquez was expected to return Friday. Velazquez has several important mounts on Saturday's card, including Summer Colony in the Beldame and Storm Flag Flying in the Frizette.

* Led by Grade 1 winners Raging Fever and Shine Again, a field of five or six is expected for Sunday's Grade 2, $150,000 Gallant Bloom Handicap for fillies and mares at six furlongs. Raging Fever was assigned high weight of 120 pounds while Shine Again, the Ballerina winner, was assigned 118. Also expected to run are Harmony Lodge (114), Nasty Storm (114), and Belle Artiste (114).

- additional reporting by David Grening