03/20/2003 1:00AM

Heavy-hearted Hiles saddles San Dare


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Rick Hiles will send out San Dare as the odds-on favorite to win Sunday's $200,000 Orchid Handicap. But even a third straight graded stakes victory by the long-winded turf specialist won't erase the memories of last Saturday for Hiles, whose top 3-year-old prospect Midway Cat broke down during the running of the $1 million Florida Derby.

"If San Dare wins it might absorb a little bit of the hurt but it will never make up for what happened last weekend," Hiles said Wednesday. "It's especially hard for a guy like me with only five horses to lose a horse like that. I really had high hopes for him. Not only this year but for the future, as well, since everything in his family got better as they got older. It really hits you in the gut. I go by and look at that empty stall every day. It's something I'll never get over."

Midway Cat became a major player in the local 3-year-old division with an impressive first-level allowance victory that came after being equipped with blinkers and getting Lasix for the first time on Jan. 18. He finished third in the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth Stakes despite racing rankly during the early stages, and was considered a major contender, after favorites Trust N Luck and Empire Maker, coming into the Florida Derby.

Midway Cat forced the pace of Trust N Luck for the opening five furlongs of the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby but began to back up badly as the field approached the far turn. He fell entering the stretch and had to be euthanized on the track after fracturing the cannon bone in his right front leg.

"When he had no response as two and three horses passed by, I knew something was wrong," Hiles said. "He had his head down lower than usual and I could see he was getting weak into the far turn. I think he either collapsed from exhaustion or perhaps was hemorrhaging on the inside. Breaking his leg was probably secondary to something else. He was not insured, so we did not order an autopsy."

San Dare will start as the highweight under 119 pounds in the 1 1/2-mile Orchid. A 5-year-old daughter of Dare and Go, she has already won the Grade 3 Honey Fox and The Very One handicaps this meet. She used the same tactics in those two races, rallying from the rear of the pack and circling five or six wide into the stretch before finishing with a strong burst of speed outside horses.

"She appears to be keeping her form very well," Hiles said. "I train her pretty good in between starts then back off a little bit the closer she gets to her races."

Mark Guidry, who has won four races in a row aboard San Dare, will have the assignment once again.

The presence of San Dare will limit the Grade 2 Orchid to only six or seven starters. The field is also expected to include Tweedside, Hi Tech Honeycomb, Queue, Crooked Wood, and perhaps Stay Forever and Amelia.

Batter up for backstretch

A benefit softball game pitting the Gulfstream Park jockeys against the Florida Turf Writers/Media Association will be held March 25 beginning at 6 p.m. at Oreste Blake Johnson Park located on NW 8th Ave. in Hallandale Beach. All proceeds will benefit the backstretch communities of Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course by way of His Place Ministries, which is run by Chaplain Tom LaPointe.

Among the jockeys expected to participate are leading riders Eibar Coa and Cornelio Velasquez, Rene Douglas, Tommy Turner, Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Ferrer, Julio Garcia, Eduardo Nunez, and Roger Velez.

* The first 2-year-old race of the meet is scheduled for Monday. The race is carded for fillies going three furlongs and offers a $36,000 purse.