04/09/2003 12:00AM

Funny Cide back home to regroup


OZONE PARK, N.Y.- After a frustrating winter down south, Funny Cide returned Tuesday afternoon to New York, where he will have a chance to recapture some of the brilliance he displayed here last fall in Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

Last year, Funny Cide went 3 for 3 facing strictly New York-bred competition. His victories in the Bertram F. Bongard and Sleepy Hollow were good enough to earn him the 2-year-old New York-bred championship.

Things began to go awry for Funny Cide late last year when he developed a lung infection while training for the Great State Challenge Juvenile, a race he did not run in.

Funny Cide got healthy in time to run in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, but drew post 13 and had an awful trip, finishing fifth. Funny Cide again was hampered by a lung infection and missed a little training time preparing for the Louisiana Derby.

In the Louisiana Derby, Funny Cide set strong early fractions before fading to third behind Peace Rules and Kafwain. He came out of that race without a problem and has been training well for the Wood, according to his connections.

"He's fitter now than he was going into that race," said Robin Smullen, assistant to trainer Barclay Tagg and the regular exercise rider for Funny Cide.

Funny Cide figures to be the pacemaker in the Wood, in which he will face the Kentucky Derby favorite, Empire Maker; the Lane's End Stakes winner, New York Hero; Senor Swinger; Indy Dancer; Sky Soldier; and Kissin Saint.

Smullen and Tagg just hope Funny Cide can get away with slower early fractions than in the Louisiana Derby.

"If we can get him to go three-quarters in 1:12 and he can't do it after three-quarters in 1:12, then he can't do it at a mile and an eighth," Smullen said.

Smullen said she doesn't think a wet track would inhibit Funny Cide on Saturday.

"He doesn't care if it's a plowed field - he'll go through it," Smullen said. "He hasn't seemed to mind it in the mud."

California horses arrive

Empire Maker, likely to be odds-on in the Wood, arrived safely from California on Wednesday. After twice having his flight delayed because of mechanical problems, he and stablemates Special Rate, Aldebaran, and Thunder Blitz caught a plane that arrived in New York early Wednesday morning. They are stabled in trainer Richard Dutrow Jr.'s Aqueduct barn.

"They shipped great," said Ruben Lazo, assistant to trainer Bobby Frankel.

On Tuesday, Bob Baffert's trio of Senor Swinger, Congaree, and During arrived at Belmont and were bedded down in trainer John Terranova's barn. On Wednesday, Senor Swinger galloped a mile over a sloppy Belmont training track while Congaree and During walked under tack.

Tonja Terranova, John's wife, who has assisted Baffert for years when his horses come to New York, said all three horses shipped in well. She was particularly impressed with the physical condition of Congaree, who won last year's Grade 1 Cigar Mile over this track.

"Congaree looks absolutely incredible, as good as he did before the Cigar Mile," she said.

Add Sky Soldier to Wood probables

Trainer Todd Beattie said Wednesday he is strongly leaning toward running Sky Soldier, undefeated winner of the March 29 Private Terms Stakes, in Saturday's Wood.

Though Beattie isn't thrilled with the idea of running back in two weeks, the prospect of a short field and a wet track make the race attractive to Beattie and owner Arthur Vickers. Sky Soldier, a son of Unaccounted For, won the Private Terms by four lengths over a muddy Laurel track.

"I don't think it'll back him up, it'll back up some of the other horses," Beattie said, regarding an off track, from his barn at Penn National. "I know the [competition] is a lot deeper, and I don't know if we can handle it or not, but he's sure doing good right now. I know running back in two weeks after winning off a three-month layoff isn't the ideal thing to do, but because of the Derby hype and everything we've got to try it."

Beattie said Rodrigo Madrigal Jr., who has ridden Sky Soldier in all three starts, will retain the mount. Sky Soldier will ship to New York the morning of the race.

Papua stepping up in Carter

New York-bred Papua will take on the big boys in Saturday's $350,000 Carter Handicap.

The winner of the restricted Hollie Hughes in his last start on March 2, Papua has won his last four races over Aqueduct's inner track.

The waters will get significantly deeper in the Grade 1 Carter, where Papua will meet Grade 1 winners Affirmed Success, Congaree, Aldebaran, and Peeping Tom.

Mike Hushion, who trains Papua, a 4-year-old son of Louis Quartorze, for New York Racing Association chairman Barry Schwartz, has had the seven-furlong Carter on his mind since Papua became a stakes winner in the Hollie Hughes.

"You know when they put up the money, a Grade 1 is going to be tough," Hushion said. "When [Papua] gets in front he hangs a little bit. It will be interesting to see when he has a real target in front of him - if he keeps on going after him."

Papua's regular rider, Richard Migliore, is committed to ride Affirmed Success. Jose Santos picks up the mount on Papua, who is undefeated in four starts on wet tracks. Rain is in the forecast for Friday.

"I think [Santos] fits him," Hushion said. "Our horse likes to sit the pocket and pounce, and nobody does that better than Santos."

C.C. Lopez heading to California

Journeyman rider Chuck Lopez will move his tack to Southern California after this weekend and hopes to begin riding regularly out West by the opening of the Hollywood Park meet, April 23.

Lopez, 42, who rode his 2,890th winner in Wednesday's second race at Aqueduct, has captured riding titles at Monmouth Park, The Meadowlands, Atlantic City, Garden State Park and Philadelphia Park. He is the son of Carlos Lopez Sr., who rode 1,215 winners in his career.

"When I started riding I set two goals for myself,'' Lopez said Wednesday. "One of them was to be halfway as good a rider as my father, the other one was to go ride in California. I think I've done the first part, and it's a tremendous opportunity to go chase a dream. You never know what happens - it's a great game indeed. Opportunity is everywhere."

Lopez said one of the reasons he believes this is the right time to move to Southern California is the retirement of Hall of Fame riders Eddie Delahoussaye and Chris McCarron and injuries to Laffit Pincay Jr. and Julie Krone.

Ray Kravagna, who has represented Delahoussaye and Gary Stevens at times, will handle Lopez's book.

Lopez is known as a terrific front-end rider, a skill he displayed once again last Saturday when he guided Classic Endeavor to a gate-to-wire victory in the Grade 3 Excelsior Breeders' Cup Handicap.

"I really like my chances to do well out there," Lopez said. "Plus, I think with my style of riding . . . they sport an awful lot of speed down there so, hopefully, I can show them what the East Coast speed can do out there."

Lopez said he hopes to leave for California on Wednesday, and said he hopes to make this a permanent move.

"I would like to finish my career somewhere where I always wanted to go," he said.

- additional reporting by Karen M. Johnson