01/30/2003 12:00AM

Century City needs best foot forward

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PHOENIX - Nine months ago, Century City was in Ireland, scaring the dickens out of the horse many considered the best in the world last year, Rock of Gibraltar.

Century City's strange journey since has now brought him to Arizona as likely the horse to beat in Saturday's $150,000 Turf Paradise Breeders' Cup Handicap, a 1 1/16-mile turf race that is the middle leg of a stakes tripleheader that also includes the $100,000 Turf Paradise Derby and $75,000 Arizona Oaks.

The Breeders' Cup is the centerpiece of Turf Paradise's biggest day of the year, and the presence of a Group 2 European winner shows how popular this race has become. Century City ran second in the Group 1 Irish 2000 Guineas to Rock of Gibraltar, and followed that up with a fifth in the Group 2 Queen Anne before taking the Group 2 Goffs International last July.

Originally purchased at auction for more than $2.2 million, Century City was sold again after the Goffs, this time to American interests, and moved to the barn of Beau Greely. The horse immediately showed what the fuss was all about, finishing a fast-closing third in the Grade 3 Bay Meadows Derby in his U.S. debut on Nov. 3, a race in which he missed the start.

After such promise, however, came disappointment. He was no factor as the favorite in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, then, in an experiment, tried dirt in the Grade 2 San Fernando at Santa Anita last month. The experiment didn't work and he finished a nonthreatening fifth.

He is back to his best game here, and Laffit Pincay Jr. has come to ride at 117 pounds.

He had better be ready, however. The field of 10 includes no fewer than six other Southern California shippers, and they have quality as well. The 118-pound highweight is Thady Quill, from the Bobby Frankel barn. He hasn't run since May, when he was fifth in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile, but two of his last three wins came off extended vacations. Frankel won this race last year with Auction House.

Devine Wind, winner of this race in 2001 (via a disqualification) and runner-up in 2002, is back for Nick Canani. A 7-year-old gelding, he remains tough as nails, though he comes off a so-so fourth in the Great State Challenge Turf at Sam Houston Dec. 7. Canani also sends Night Patrol, winner of the Grade 2 Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile last fall and a factor in Grade 1 races in Southern California last summer.

Others contenders include Duke of Green, recently claimed for $100,000 by Jeff Mullins; Hataab, winner of an $80,000 optional claimer at Hollywood for Neil Drysdale; and Eagleton, who carries local hopes.

Bertrando's Dare tops Oaks

Whether or not owner Dennis Weir and trainer Kevin Lewis wind up posing for pictures with Siberland in the Turf Paradise Derby, they have another potential Kodak moment after the $75,000 Arizona Oaks, as their 3-year-old filly Bertrando's Dare looms the favorite in that 1 1/16-mile race. A field of nine is slated to go.

Bertrando's Dare blossomed when he stretched out in distance in the Jan. 11 Sun Devil. Going right to the lead in the mile race, she never looked back, winning by almost four lengths. Her closest pursuers - Arch Lady and Our Game Plan - are among her foes again Saturday.

Before that, Bertrando's Dare was no factor in the Anderson Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs Nov. 29, though she did run better subsequently in a Dec. 31 allowance race at the same distance. Alberto Higuera keeps the mount.

Arch Lady is back for trainer Molly Pearson but must make up almost four lengths on Bertrando's Dare. After being gone two months in the fall, she stretched out to a route and won her maiden, then chased Bertrando's Dare. She ended up almost six lengths clear of the third horse, Our Game Plan, and it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that she can improve enough to be a factor.

Bertrando's Dare's biggest threat, however, may well come from one of three Southern California fillies.

Harbor Blues, trained by Nick Canani, finished fourth to Atlantic Ocean in her last race, the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel on Jan. 5 at Santa Anita.

Myofficewife is based in Southern California but is trained by Eric Kruljac, one of Turf Paradise's leading trainers. After a two-month layoff, she returned to beat starter allowance foes sprinting at Hollywood Park.

Force the Way, a maiden, rallied furiously to be second in her only outing, a maiden sprint at Santa Anita on Jan. 15. While it is asking a lot of her to ship, route, and face winners all for the first time, it is encouraging that trainer Jeff Mullins sends her here rather than run in another Southern California maiden race.

Johnston a visiting veteran

Mark Johnston said he needed a change of scenery, a break from race-riding so he could regain his focus. So Johnston, one of the top jockeys on the Maryland circuit, took a trip to Arizona to visit Seth Martinez, a friend and former Maryland-based rider who is now one of the leading riders at Turf Paradise. The next thing Johnston knew, after looking to get on a few horses just to maintain fitness, Johnston found himself with a stakes mount. Now his hiatus from racing appears to have come to an abrupt end following his third-place finish in last Saturday's Swift Stakes with pick-up mount Classy Sheikh.

"It just kind of happened," Johnston said. "I went to the track with Seth just looking to ride some horses in the morning to try and stay reasonably fit. After talking to his agent, I found myself with a mount in the stakes."

Johnston, who has more then 3,000 wins in his 13-year career, expects to return to his Columbia, Md., home in late February, but has not set a timetable for a full-time return to riding.

"I still love the game, and the change of scenery is just what I needed to get my head back into the game," Johnston said.

Johnston has continued to pick up some mounts this week, but did not have a mount in any of Saturday's three major races.

Martinez leads the pack

Martinez continues to lead the jockey standings. Through Monday, Martinez had 89 victories, putting him three clear of Steve Gomez and 20 clear of Michael Ziegler.

Martinez can add to his total Saturday. He doesn't have a mount in the Turf Paradise Derby, but does ride Duke of Green for Jeff Mullins in the Turf Paradise Breeders' Cup and Arch Lady for Molly Pearson in the Arizona Oaks.

* There will be pick-three wagering on the Derby, Breeders' Cup and Oaks, which go as the sixth, seventh and eighth races, with approximate posts of 3, 3:32, and 4:04 p.m.