06/20/2006 11:00PM

Eyes in jocks' room turned to home teams


MIAMI - Passionate World Cup soccer fans can be found everywhere these days, including inside the Calder jockeys' room. Local riders have spent most of their free time gathered around the television monitors rooting on their favorite teams since the tournament began June 9.

Among the jockeys with the closest ties to this year's World Cup are leading rider Manny Cruz, a native of Brazil, and Luca Panici, whose Italian team played to a 1-1 tie with the United States in a roughly played contest on Saturday.

"I haven't had as much time to watch the first two games as I would have liked, because I'm so busy riding," Cruz said shortly before going out to win both halves of the late daily double on Tuesday. But, Cruz said he intended to watch Brazil play Thursday, when Calder was to be dark, at his house with friends.

Cruz admitted he is not quite as fanatic about the World Cup as many of his fellow countrymen.

"My passion is riding horses," he said. "That's where my heart really lies. But I am rooting for my team and would love to see them win."

Cruz, like many of his colleagues in the jockeys' room, has played a lot of soccer himself, although he has put his playing days on hold after being injured while playing last winter in Brazil.

"I had 30 days off, so I went home to Brazil in January, got into a game, and wound up breaking a toe," said Cruz. "It wasn't anything serious, but it scared me. I can't take a chance when it comes to my riding career, so I have to be careful now even though I love to play the game."

Cruz, who came to Calder in 2002 after winning the riding title at Tampa Bay Downs earlier that year, topped Walter Guerra's old Calder meet record with 198 victories here last summer, but he still wound up second in the standings behind Eddie Castro. He did bounce back to defeat Castro and capture the 2005 Tropical title with 68 wins.

Cruz holds a commanding advantage in the standings over his nearest pursuer, Abel Castellano Jr., through the opening 41 days of the current session.

Panici, who returned to his native Italy to get married over the winter, makes his home in south Florida but remains an ardent supporter of his national team.

"I'm a big fan of the Italian team, and it was disappointing that we came out of the game against the U.S. with only a tie," he said. "All the riders in the room watch the games together, and most of them give me a hard time if Italy doesn't win."

Like Cruz, Panici enjoys playing soccer and was looking forward to Thursday when Italy was to return to action in the World Cup.

"Luckily there is no racing on Thursday, so I can devote my full attention to the game," said Panici, who says he often plays soccer on Wednesday nights at nearby Brian Piccolo Park.

Among the other local jockeys born in countries participating in this year's World Cup are W.G. De'Oliveira (Brazil), Juan Leyva (Mexico), and Macelin Manickram (Trinidad and Tobago).

Bobcat Greeley back on turf

Panici and Cruz will go head to head on the racetrack on Saturday, as both have mounts in the $45,000 Liberada Stakes on the grass. Panici will be aboard Bobcat Greeley while Cruz rides the hard-knocking turf mare Formal Miss.

Panici guided Bobcat Greeley to a 3 1/2-length second-level allowance win over the main track earlier this month and has finished worse than second just once in five tries aboard the versatile filly.

"She won easily on the dirt last time but I think she's a better filly on turf," said Panici. "This won't be an easy race. Potra Clasica is the horse to beat, although I think my filly has a good chance."

Mach Ride may go in Carry Back

Mach Ride kept his record unblemished after four starts with an upset victory in Sunday's Valid Video overnight stakes under jockey Elvis Trujillo. The win likely earned him a starting berth in the $300,000 Carry Back Stakes on Summit of Speed day here July 15.

Mach Ride, who is trained by Steve Standridge, was unraced as a 2-year-old. A son of Pentelicus, he is owned by the Rustlewood Farm Inc.

"When he came to me as a 2-year-old there was nothing wrong with him, but I just didn't like the way he was going so I sent him back home," explained Standridge who said he plans to train Mach Ride into the Carry Back.

Blazing Rate, who finished a late-running third in his first start in four months in the Valid Video, is also expected to return in the Grade 3 Carry Back, which was won last year by eventual Eclipse Award champion Lost in the Fog.

Juveniles in stakes prep

Two-year-olds will take the spotlight on Friday with a field of nine drawn for the $45,000 B L's Sweep Stakes. The overnight event at 5 1/2 furlongs is the first juvenile stakes of the meet and serves as a prep for the $80,000 Birdonthewire Stakes on July 15.

Honored Image, the only two-time winner among locally based 2-year-olds, will be favored with Cruz aboard in a strong field that includes top contenders El Bandido Rojo and Villainage.

* The Calder Hall of Fame will induct four new members later this year. Elected to the Hall of Fame, which was created in 1995, are jockey Rosemary Homeister Jr., trainer Eddie Plesa Jr., owners Herb and Ione Elkins, and the multiple-stakes-winning filly Shocker T. A winner's circle ceremony will be held on Sept. 3 to introduce the new inductees.