04/04/2003 1:00AM

Century City's time has come


PHOENIX - It was less than a year ago in the Grade 1 Irish 1000 Guineas that Century City finished just a half-length behind Rock of Gibraltar, who many at the time thought was the best horse in world. Expectations were that by now Century City would be a major player in middle-distance turf races in the United States.

But things haven't worked out that way. In six U.S. starts, beginning with a third after a slow break in the Grade 3 Bay Meadows Derby last November, Century City has only one win, in the Turf Paradise Breeders' Cup Handicap three starts ago in February. Since then, he has finished fourth in the

Grade 2 Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita and ninth in the Grade 2 Explosive Bid Handicap at the Fair Grounds March 23.

Jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., who rode Century City in the Explosive Bid for trainer Beau Greely, said to draw a line through that race and look for improvement in Sunday's $150,000, Grade 2 Arcadia Handicap at Santa Anita for 4-year-olds and upward at 1 1/8 miles on the turf.

"He didn't really have any problems in the race," Valdivia said. "He just never cared for the track. He just kept bobbling, going up and down. The course was firm but they have long grass and they roll it down, and he was always uncomfortable. He spit the bit about the half-mile pole. He wasn't even trying to run, and he only got beat seven lengths. He pulled up like he hadn't done anything.

"I spoke to Beau after that and he told me that's why he's wheeling him right back. The trip didn't seem to take anything out of him. I guess we have to throw that race out."

Greely has trained horses such as Grade 1 stakes winner Manndar, so he's not out of his element here. And there are significant questions involving Century City's opposition.

Ballingarry is the horse to beat, but he hasn't run since last fall's Breeders' Cup Turf and may want more ground. Decarchy, a top-class turf horse owned by Juddmonte Farms and trained by Bobby Frankel, hasn't been at his best of late.

Century City is back to his home ground and that can help him return to top form. Ballingarry and Decarchy may go on to make more noise as the year goes on, but this spot may well belong to Century City.

A pick three worth playing

The Big 3 Pick 3 will be held Saturday. The wager, which comprises the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes, and Arkansas Derby, has paid less than $200 in three of the six times it has been conducted. But it's also paid big a few times: $450.50 in 1998, $3,594 in 1999, and $249.50 in 2000.

This year's bet is loaded with price potential, particularly if Empire Maker loses in the Wood.

Certainly Empire Maker is the horse to beat in the Wood, but his trainer, Bobby Frankel, knows the important race is a month from now, and all he wants in the Wood is a good, solid race for Empire Maker.

You have to use Empire Maker and you also probably need to use Indy Dancer, who closed well to be third in the Florida Derby, and Senor Swinger, who made a nice midrace move in the Florida Derby and recently was purchased privately by Bob Baffert.

The Blue Grass looks like Peace Rules and Badge of Silver. Peace Rules won the Louisiana Derby and could be any kind, while Badge of Silver could be back on his game after throat surgery.

The Arkansas Derby is the tough part. Do you just play "all" and hope for a big price? After all, possible favorite Man Among Men bled in the San Felipe at Santa Anita and may not be right, and the other runners come with question marks attached.

The logical play is: Empire Maker, Indy Dancer, and Senor Swinger in the Wood; Peace Rules and Badge of Silver in the Blue Grass; and Man Among Men, Aristocat, and Ten Cents a Shine in the Arkansas Derby ($18 for a $1 bet).