07/11/2002 12:00AM

Florida in July lures Zucker, Crafty C.T.


MIAMI - The last time trainer Howie Zucker ran a horse at Calder was in 1982. On Saturday, he will return to south Florida with Crafty C.T., the likely favorite in the $400,000 Smile Sprint Handicap.

"If someone told me I'd ever be coming back to Miami to run a horse in the middle of July I'd have said they were crazy," said Zucker, who spent several winters working at Gulfstream Park in the early and mid-1970's. He also spent a couple summers at Calder training a small stable of his own while also running trainer Ron Felix's shed row in the early 1980's.

The Smile just happened to be the ideal opportunity for Crafty C.T. to get another important race under his belt en route to what Zucker hopes will be an appearance in the Breeders' Cup Sprint later this season. It is also the perfect opportunity for Zucker to spend some time with two of his best friends, Calder racing secretary Bob Umphrey and owner-assistant trainer Phil Combest.

"I've known Bobby since the early 70's when his dad ran the shed row and I worked for Bud Lepman at Gulfstream Park," said Zucker. "Bob was still in high school back then and we've been close buddies for a long time. He's gone on to become one of the best racing secretaries in the business and probably one of the best-kept secrets in racing. What a job he's done with this place. Years ago it was unheard of for any horses to ship into Calder during the summer. Now he's got a stakes program that's bringing a bunch of guys like me all the way out from California to run here in the middle of July."

Zucker and Combest go back nearly as far.

"I knew Phil when he was a patrol judge at Gulfstream 20 years ago," said Zucker. "He wound up coming out to Southern California to become a screenwriter for Hill Street Blues about the same time I moved out there to become contract trainer for Jerry Buss. So it was just natural that two transplanted Floridians would hook up and become close friends. Besides he ran a twice weekly basketball game that fit perfectly into my schedule."

While Zucker may be enjoying a homecoming of sorts with his old friends this week, he will be all business when it comes to Crafty C.T.'s appearance in the Smile.

"I didn't come here because Bobby is the racing secretary " said Zucker. "It just turned out this race fit perfectly into our schedule following the Metropolitan Handicap and leading into the Pat O'Brien at Del Mar in August. We could have run last week in the Triple Bend, but my horse did not run well the first time at Hollywood. So I figured why tempt fate with him again over that track. And besides the Smile was worth $100,000 more."

If all goes well, Zucker plans to keep Crafty C.T. on a path toward the Breeders' Cup Sprint despite good showings in route races, including a solid third-place effort in the one-mile Met Handicap and his second-place finish behind Point Given a year ago in the Santa Anita Derby.

"I don't think we've seen what his distance limitations are," said Zucker. "He wasn't half himself in the Santa Anita Derby last year and still finished second behind a champion. Somewhere down the line we might see him go around two turns again. But I know he's a superior sprinter, it's easier on him, and if we wind up in the Breeders' Cup this year it will be in the Sprint."

Echo Eddie arrives on cargo flight

Crafty C.T. was supposed to have been joined on the flight from California to Miami on Wednesday by Echo Eddie, one of his main competitors in the sprint. But when the plane took off, Echo Eddie was still munching hay in his stall at Santa Anita.

"The van that was hired to transport him to the airport arrived at the barn too late for him to make the flight," explained Scott Chaney, assistant to trainer Darrell Vienna. "Fortunately, we were able to do some maneuvering and get him on an Emory cargo flight late Wednesday night."

Echo Eddie finally arrived in Miami and was bedded down in the receiving barn at Calder by late Thursday morning.

"We were only going to walk him today [Thursday] so we really didn't miss much," said Chaney. "If we had a further delay getting a flight out of California then we might have considered passing the race and waiting for the Bing Crosby in a couple of weeks at Del Mar. But he's a pretty professional traveler, he's already been to Dubai and back, so the flight change shouldn't affect him too much."