06/18/2003 12:00AM

Cocky has Bell back in action

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Mike Bell was tired of the racetrack grind, so he did what most trainers only threaten to do: He left. Bell escaped for nearly two years to the quiet environs of rural South Carolina, where he worked with yearlings and 2-year-olds while regenerating his enthusiasm for the racing game.

Duly refreshed, Bell is back - which can only be good for Kentucky racing. As an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Frank Whiteley during the halcyon days of Ruffian and other stars, Bell is a throwback to a bygone era, when year-round racing scarcely existed and a trainer gave hands-on treatment to every horse in his stable.

Since returning to Kentucky this spring, Bell has assembled a stable of nearly 20 horses at the Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington. Friday, Bell will run his first horse since he won with 11 of 50 starters in 2001 when he saddles Cocky in the featured ninth race at Churchill Downs.

Cocky, unraced since July 2001, formerly was trained by Bobby Frankel, whose main client, Juddmonte Farms, is managed in the United States by Dr. John Chandler. Chandler is married to Bell's mother, Alice Chandler, a member of the Kentucky Racing Commission and the longtime matriarch of Mill Ridge Farm.

The long layoff may be a source of concern to horseplayers, but some may remember that the 6-year-old Cocky once was a rising star in the Frankel barn, having been pointed to the 2000 Triple Crown before defeats in the Santa Anita Derby and Lexington Stakes. Moreover, as a Whiteley disciple, Bell is known as an extraordinarily patient trainer whose horses tend to perform capably regardless of the amount of time between races.

* Friday is the first day of riding at Churchill for James Graham, a 21-year-old apprentice rider from Ireland. Graham has three mounts on a 10-race card that carries a first post of 2:45 p.m. Eastern.

Ipi Tombe's next still uncertain

Trainer Elliott Walden said Wednesday that he is still undecided about where and when Ipi Tombe will make her U.S. debut.

Walden said the June 28 Locust Grove Handicap at Churchill is one of "three or four" possible spots that Ipi Tombe, a 5-year-old Zimbabwe-bred mare, will use as a prep for the Aug. 16 Beverly D. at Arlington Park.

Ipi Tombe was scheduled to breeze on the Churchill turf course Tuesday, but workouts were canceled because of soft conditions. Walden rescheduled the breeze for Thursday.