01/23/2002 1:00AM

Florida Derby brings Ycaza to mind

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It will be 40 years on Florida Derby Day in March since a filly posed a genuine threat in Gulfstream Park's signature race, and that filly was Cicada.

She was more than just a threat. She was the real McCoy, tough, talented and tenacious, and she probably should have won the 1962 Florida Derby under Bill Shoemaker. The key reason she didn't win, the key reason Ridan prevailed by a nose in one of the great stretch duels of our time, was the brilliant ride Ridan received from Manuel Ycaza.

Ridan was an outstanding colt in his own right, and full of speed. A number of top riders put him on the lead, but Ycaza reasoned his best chance would be to come from off the pace. He took a stalker's stance, and though Cicada opened a four-length lead and later bumped Ridan as he turned for home, Ridan won the day with his memorable finish.

That wasn't the only occasion on which Ycaza's talent for taking a different approach made a big difference. Bald Eagle was a Nasrullah, with all the ability and difficult behavior suggested by his pedigree. Sent to England originally, he was returned to the U.S. after disappointing in the Epsom Derby with this commentary: not very genuine.

Bald Eagle had some success on home soil but it wasn't until Ycaza tried something new that the Cain Hoy Stable ace electrified his countrymen by winning the Washington D.C. International. Bald Eagle's eagerness was his principal problem.

Ycaza dealt with it at Laurel by tucking him in behind horses at the outset to the point where he was clipping heels in heavy traffic. When he was finally uncovered, Bald Eagle flew away from the others for a glorious victory.

There were so many other afternoons when Ycaza's brilliance was evident for all to see, and there were, to be sure, occasions when his fierce desire to win overrode his judgment. He rode Jewel's Reward to a stunning defeat of Tim Tam in the Flamingo of 1958, only to be disqualified for interference.

Even more shocking was his disqualification aboard Dr. Fager in the Jersey Derby of 1967 at Garden State Park after he creamed the four-horse field by more than six lengths.

He was a natural from Day 1 in his native Panama, and like so many riding greats from that country, he dreamed of a career in the U.S. He came to California for the first time in 1954 with the stable of the well-known bloodstock agent, E.A. Silver, rode for several months in the San Francisco area, and then returned home.

In 1956 he accompanied his family on a holiday excursion to Mexico City, visited the beautiful Hipodromo de las Americas, and applied for a license. He rode there for two seasons before returning to the U.S. Now he was in Southern California, and he got off to a strong start at Santa Anita, attracting the attention of Elizabeth Graham of Maine Chance Farm. He came east with the stable to Florida, where he was to write so many vivid chapters of racing history.

In 1959, Ycaza began a highly successful association with Capt. Harry Guggenheim, whose Cain Hoy stable was trained by Woody Stephens. While the closest he came in the Kentucky Derby was his second with Never Bend in 1963, Chateaugay's year, he rode the winners of many other major stakes, earning a reputation that was eventually to earn him Hall of Fame recognition.

Ycaza's career pretty much came to an end in 1970 when he was hospitalized after a severe injury on the Hialeah turf course. He resumed riding in 1971 but was forced to stop when a knee locked. He underwent successful surgery at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital and completed a lengthy rehabilitation program when he received a phone call from Panama's president, Gen. Omar Torrijos. Panama's consul general in New York had died and Ycaza was invited to take the post. He accepted and served with distinction for several years.

He rode briefly again in the fall of 1983, but devotes most of his time to looking after real estate and other investment properties in Panama and the U.S.