01/02/2003 12:00AM

Brice is back - and lighting up the board

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Longtime horseplayers who remembered the name Michael Brice have probably done quite well for themselves the last several months. Those who haven't recognized the name are quickly becoming acquainted with the longshot players' new best friend.

Since returning from a 15-year hiatus from training, Brice, 39, has saddled eight winners from 66 starters at an average win mutuel of $42.32. When Vault ($14.40) won Wednesday's sixth race, it marked Brice's third win from 11 starts at Aqueduct's inner track meet. Neither of his starters on Thursday won, but Brice still retains a high return-on-investment.

Brice's two previous winners at the meet were Mark's Mane Man ($43.60) and Hideaway CafŽ ($63). Among his winners last year were Lady Commando ($48), Boone's Mask ($30.40), and Leave It to Betsy ($83.50).

So who exactly is Michael Brice and where has he been all these years?

Brice is the son of Harry Brice, a former jockey and trainer who died of a heart attack in 1984 while he maintained a 25-horse stable on the NYRA circuit. Michael Brice worked as an assistant to his father at the time and kept 14 of those horses in training. One of them was Snakey, who won three races during Saratoga's 24-day meet in 1984.

In 1985, Brice won 26 races from 123 starters and his stable earned $620,259. He won stakes with Elegant Life, Budgerigar, and Asleep in Church. Records kept by Daily Racing Form and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association show that Brice trained for only two more years after that, going a combined 6 for 109 in 1986-87.

"I was not happy about trying to make everybody happy so I got out of it,'' Brice said.

Brice went into the construction business and also bought a farm in upstate New York where he boarded horses. But, Brice watched the races daily and attended the races when he could. The allure of the sport called him back.

"Once it's in your blood you can't do anything else,'' Brice said.

Brice began training again in December 2001. He won two races at the Belmont spring meet and two at the Aqueduct fall meet before his current hot streak.

Brice owns all 15 of his horses, a few in partnership. He said he'd like to also train for other owners.

"My goal right now is trying to find owners, because I own them all,'' said Brice. "The only way I figured to come back and do it the right way is to put up my own money and get my own horses. People see that, then they might give me a couple of horses. I have a small stable and I need to get bigger.''

Safely at Home to try Ruthless

Safely at Home showed promise when she won her maiden on July 6, beating subsequent stakes winner Chimichurri and receiving a Beyer Speed Figure of 91. But an illness sidelined her for five months, and she returned to finish third in an entry-level allowance race on Dec. 6.

Trainer John DeStefano believes that race should set her up well for Sunday's $75,000 Ruthless Stakes, a six-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies.

"She was one work shy of running, but the owners said the race is there, use it,'' DeStefano said of the allowance race. "The race I wanted to wait for never filled anyway. Speed was disastrous that day and they tell me she was the only [speed] horse that day that held on.''

Safely at Home worked five furlongs in 1:02.20 on Monday, and DeStefano believes she will be ready for the Ruthless.

Reign of Tara, who defeated Safely at Home by one length in the Dec. 6 race, heads the field expected for the Ruthless. Others expected to run include Border Bound, Cyber Secret, Hansel's Gretel, Impolite, Lizzy Cool, and Xtra Heart.

Arroyo out indefinitely

Jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. is out indefinitely with a sore right shoulder, his agent, John Kolb, said Thursday. Arroyo took off his mounts on Thursday for a second straight day and was expected to do the same Friday. Kolb didn't accept mounts for Saturday's card.

According to Kolb, Arroyo injured his shoulder aboard 10th-place finisher Mr. Liberty in the last race on Sunday. Arroyo went to the hospital on Wednesday, and X-rays for any fractures came back negative. Arroyo underwent an MRI on Thursday and will await the results of that before determining when he'll ride again.

* Tom Durkin called the races on Thursday, and will now take his annual winter vacation. Durkin is scheduled to return at NYRA in early April. In the interim, John Imbriale will call the races.