06/05/2005 11:00PM

A healthy Cruz looking like his old self

Bill Denver/Equi-Photos
Choose wins the Wolf Hill Stakes, which was moved from turf to dirt.

OCEANPORT, N.J. - Carlos Cruz knew something wasn't right.

The 2004 Monmouth Park season was rapidly approaching, but the jockey didn't feel up to it.

He was riding at Philadelphia Park and his energy level was dwindling.

"I started getting really weak," Cruz said. "I didn't have the strength I used to have."

Doctors ran blood tests and determined Cruz was anemic. Further tests revealed the cause: a cancerous tumor in his colon.

Suddenly, Cruz confronted a potentially life-altering challenge.

"The doctor told me it would take six months to recuperate and I might not come back the same," Cruz said. "I was scared. This is my life. I don't know what else to do. I don't have anything else."

There was little time to waste. Cruz checked into the hospital several days later for surgery.

"They told me it had to come out or I would have a big problem," Cruz said. "The good thing is, we found it in time."

Cruz was back riding by August, too late to think about Monmouth.

He is back at Monmouth this year and has not missed a beat. Cruz has ridden well at this early stage in the meet, with 5 winners from only 24 mounts. Trainers are starting to take notice.

"I think when people see he's back to his form, his business will pick up," said trainer Dennis Manning. "Now that's he's back, he's doing great. He's back riding for me again."

Cruz, 40, is grateful to anyone who lends a hand in his comeback.

"I appreciate everybody who is giving me a shot," Cruz said. "I want to stay here. I'm going to put in 100 percent. I usually start slow, but by the middle of July I'm rolling when the weather heats up. That's when Carlos Cruz is happiest."

Cruz had his best Monmouth season in 2002, when he won 43 races to finish fifth in the standings.

Choose heading back to the turf

Choose gives trainer John Forbes a very solid grass or dirt option following a five-length victory Sunday in the off-the-turf Wolf Hill Stakes.

"It looks like he'll do either one, which is nice," Forbes said.

Forbes is looking ahead to Monmouth's $55,000 John Henry Stakes at five furlongs on the turf on July 10.

One thing Forbes won't try again: stretching out the 4-year-old Choose. He had hoped to run Choose in last year's Haskell Invitational, but the horse showed no ability beyond six furlongs.

"When we stopped trying to stretch him and let him be a sprinter, he really put it all together," Forbes said.

Choose has won two of his last three starts, with the loss coming in the Yankee Affair Stakes at Gulfstream Park, where Procreate ran the five furlongs on the grass in 53.79 seconds to shatter the world record.

Praying for Cash an instant hit

Praying for Cash had many observers buzzing last Friday at Monmouth with an electrifying debut.

A 2-year-old son of Songandaprayer, Praying for Cash shuffled to the back of the pack before unleashing a powerful rally down the backstretch. He flew past the competition with Joe Bravo aboard and rolled to a wrapped-up 4 1/2-length win in 57.96 seconds for the five furlongs.

The victory preserved a family tradition. Praying for Cash followed his sire and the sire's sire, Unbridled's Song, as first-out winners here.

"He can't train with the other 2-year-olds," said trainer Kelly Breen. "He's already past that level. He's like LeBron James jumping right out of high school to play with pros.

"Hopefully, he's not just one of those early 2-year-olds that are a little more advanced than the rest of them. He's got the mental attitude of an older horse."

It was an auspicious beginning for Praying for Cash, who was purchased by former Duke basketball star Bobby Hurley and Ricky Gallo, Hurley's pal from the old neighborhood in Jersey City, N.J., for $150,000 at the Keeneland 2-year-old sale in April.

It was doubly satisfying for Hurley, who raced and still owns Songandaprayer.

Now comes the tricky part: deciding whether to answer the calls inquiring to see if Praying for Cash is for sale.

"It's money, but we're also chasing a dream," said Gallo, an investment banker who lives in Middletown, N.J. "What does the money mean? I've been in the game 15 years waiting for a horse like this.'

Quarantine lifted

Monmouth has lifted its quarantine restrictions on horses shipping in from New York Racing Association tracks.

Fearing possible contamination by the respiratory infection of strangles, Monmouth shielded New York runners from the general horse population in isolation barns. Horses who shipped in from New York to race were not allowed to remain on the grounds.

With the restrictions lifted, New York horses now have full access to the Monmouth backstretch.