02/26/2003 12:00AM

He's Boy From Wicklow no more

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It is usually a mistake to give up on a horse.

Rick Violette Jr. must have been sorely tempted at times with Man From Wicklow, who went through his 2-year-old season and most of his 3-year-old campaign before winning his maiden. But Violette, who liked him at first sight and purchased him privately as a weanling, persisted with a confident approach and saw his appreciation justified.

After numerous disappointments, Man From Wicklow finally won a stakes, the Grade 2 W.L. McKnight Handicap on the Calder turf course in December, and confirmed that form with an impressive triumph by almost five lengths in the recent Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap. He is now generally regarded as the leader of the grass horse division in Florida, and is a solid favorite for the $200,000 Pan American Handicap on March 22.

"It didn't look as if he was ever going to win a race," Violette recalled the other day. "Blinkers helped to turn him around, but just to give you an idea of the scenario, he paid $150 when he broke his maiden.

"That was a step forward, but not the entire journey by any means. Reaching maturity was a tedious process. He began to come to hand last summer and ran a strong race in the Sword Dancer at Saratoga only to have his chances compromised when he clipped heels and stumbled badly. Despite the trouble, he was beaten only two lengths for all the money.

He had a good look at the Grade 1 Man o' War at Belmont Park last fall, but the rider dropped his whip. Man From Wicklow was moving forward however, and in the McKnight was able to overcome trouble that forced him to steady during the early stages. He made his own luck in the Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup, getting a position earlier than usual under Jerry Bailey and finishing strongly through the stretch.

"He does it all now," Violette said. "He runs on firm ground and soft ground, will go inside horses and on the outside, and can be placed anywhere. He is particularly well suited to a real distance of ground, but Bailey thinks he has the speed to deal with shorter races, too. After the Pan American we may consider that $400,000 Woodford Reserve at nine furlongs on Derby Day."

The Pan American, with a $200,000 purse this season, is down from the high-water mark of $350,000 in 1992 and 1993.

"We had to trim a number of stakes for the Sunshine Million purses," said Dave Bailey, Gulfstream's racing secretary and director of racing. "We expect to beef up the Pan American next season. We're also going to study the distance. It may be too early in the racing season for a mile-and-a-half feature."

Christophe Clement, whose stable has enjoyed considerable success in major turf races, does not expect to have a starter in the Pan American.

"Hopefully, that is a temporary situation," he said. "The Pan American is a fine race and we like to challenge for it. I hope they don't change the distance. We've lost too many mile-and-a-half races, and it has had an effect on our racing and breeding."