02/20/2004 12:00AM

Hard Buck wades in deeper

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - After a successful, albeit conservative, campaign last year, the Brazilian-bred Hard Buck makes his first foray into North American Grade 1 competition Sunday when he runs in the $250,000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap.

Hard Buck, a Group 1 winner in Brazil, arrived in the United States last April, following a ninth-place finish in the UAE Derby in Dubai. He did not make it to the races until September, when he won minor stakes at Ellis Park and Kentucky Downs. In November, he gave trainer Ken McPeek a glimpse of his potential when he rallied to win the Grade 3 River City Handicap at Churchill Downs.

McPeek said Hard Buck had a difficult time switching his leads in his first couple of starts in North America.

"When he won the River City, he hit them all on cue," McPeek said.

McPeek brought Hard Buck to Florida in early December, but the horse got sick, which precluded him from running in the W.L. McKnight at Calder. McPeek ran Hard Buck in the off-the-turf Canadian Turf Handicap in January because he needed to get a race into him in order to make the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup. Sunday's race, run at 1 3/8 miles on turf, will be Hard Buck's first in North America beyond 1 1/8 miles.

"I think he wants to go further - I think the further the better," McPeek said.

McPeek hopes Hard Buck runs well enough to warrant taking him to Dubai for the $2 million Dubai Sheema Classic in March.

"He needs to win this race or run a very, very good race to punch his ticket to Dubai," McPeek said.

Man Among Men on comeback trail

Man Among Men, who hasn't raced since last April, began his comeback with a three-furlong breeze in 36 seconds on Thursday at Gulfstream.

Man Among Men, a one-time highly rated 3-year-old of 2003, hasn't run since he finished 10th in last year's Arkansas Derby. According to Gary Mandella, who trained Man Among Men last year, the colt wasn't quite right after that race. Because he was such a large horse, Man Among Men needed time to grow into his body, Mandella believed.

"We were taxing him too much, and the hubcaps were going to start falling off," Mandella said from Southern California.

A son of Gentlemen, Man Among Men was sent to owner R.D. Hubbard's Crystal Springs Farm, where he spent several months. Toward the end of 2003, Man Among Men was sent to Ocala, where, under the tutelage of Robbie Harris, Man Among Men exercised in a swimming pool and began light training on the track.

Since he was already in Florida, the decision was made to send Man Among Men to Mark Hennig - who also trains for Hubbard - at Gulfstream Park. According to Tom Goncharoff, the racing manager/farm manager for Hubbard, Man Among Men will most likely make his return to the races at Gulfstream later this meet. He could return to Mandella in Southern California later this spring or summer.

"That's the plan so far, but the plans aren't terribly firm," Goncharoff said. "It's an open-ended thing. There is certainly no lack of confidence in Gary - nothing could be further from the truth. Mark is a lot in the same mold as the Mandellas in the way he takes care of his horses, so it seemed like a pretty good fit."

Since Man Among Men has won stakes on both turf and dirt - he defeated Empire Maker in the Sham Stakes on dirt last February - it is uncertain on which surface he will run this year.

"His mother was a mile-and-a-half grass horse in France, so there's a chance he will be a better horse on turf," Mandella said. "At the same time, he beat Empire Maker on dirt, so at some point he'll get a chance to prove that race wasn't a fluke."

Mixed progress for Byrne runners

Trainer Patrick Byrne remembers last March 22 as being almost a perfect day. At Turfway Park that afternoon, Byrne saddled Private Gold to victory in the Rushaway Stakes while narrowly missing taking the Lane's End Stakes with Eugene's Third Son, who was beaten a neck by New York Hero.

Unfortunately, each horse would make only one more start before having to be laid up. Private Gold finished fifth in the Derby Trial, and came out of the race with a chip in his ankle that required surgery. Eugene's Third Son finished second in the Arkansas Derby, but was also sidelined due to injury.

Eugene's Third Son returned in the fall to win a pair of allowance races in Kentucky. Unfortunately, he has not taken as well to the Gulfstream surface this winter and has since undergone an examination at the Rood and Riddle Equine Clinic in Lexington. Eugene's Third Son has not been diagnosed with any problems, but Byrne has kept him in Kentucky to train. He is unlikely to make Byrne's goal of running in the Richter Scale Stakes here next month is unlikely.

"He's going to take a little more time than we thought," Byrne said.

Meanwhile, Private Gold worked a solid five furlongs in 1:01 and is getting ready to return, most likely during this meet.

"He worked good this morning; he worked easy," Byrne said. "He was actually working a half-mile and they got him five furlongs, which meant he galloped out good."

Honor in War making strides

Honor in War, second in racing secretary Dave Bailey's weight assignments for Sunday's Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup, worked a half-mile in 52 seconds over the grass here Wednesday. Paul McGee, Honor in War's trainer, said the turf specialist is not yet ready for a race.

"He's not very far along since we brought him back from the farm," McGee said by phone from Kentucky. "He's just not ready to run in this one."

Honor in War earned national attention when he upset the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve on last year's Kentucky Derby undercard. He also won the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap and finished second, beaten less than a length by Perfect Soul, in the Grade 1 Shadwell Mile during his 2003 campaign.

The Shadwell Mile was to be Honor in War's final prep for the Breeders' Cup Mile, but a wrenched ankle forced McGee to cancel those plans.

"I just turned him out for a couple of months after he injured his ankle," said McGee. "I worked him on the dirt here last week to let him stretch his legs. He got on the grass [Wednesday], and if all goes well I'm hoping we can make the next big one before we leave Florida," the trainer said, referring to the Grade 2 Pan American on March 20.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch