01/05/2002 1:00AM

Houghton is hot without much help from top client


OLDSMAR, Fla. - T.D. Houghton's quick start at this meeting was no great shock. After all, Houghton was the leading rider at Tampa Bay Downs in 1999 and 2000, and had a banner year in 2001, winning more than 300 races despite being sidelined for the first three weeks of the year while rehabbing from an injury.

The surprise is that Houghton has been able to take the early lead in the jockeys' race even though his main client, trainer Barbara McBride, wasn't in high gear early in the meet.

"He's doing great and Barbara's got plenty of bullets [competitive runners] over there that haven't started yet," said rival jockey agent Don Hill. "When she gets in gear, T.D. will be riding most of the live ones, then we're [the competition] really going to have to scramble to keep up."

On Thursday fans got a taste of what the McBride-Houghton team is capable of as the pair teamed up with two winners. After finishing a fast-closing second in the third with Ravel's Bolero, McBride sent Houghton out aboard Halo's Secret for owner Neal Allread in a 1 1/16-mile claiming route. Houghton turned in a vintage effort, slipping up the rail to challenge for the lead on the backstretch and then working feverishly through a long drive to earn a head victory. The win was the third from four starts for Halo's Secret since McBride took over his training in November.

Houghton and McBride swung right back in the eighth race with Argentine-bred Privateer, a long-striding colt who rallied from off the pace to run down Jacob's Message in the final furlong of a six-furlong allowance race. Privateer, who had turned in several solid efforts over wet tracks, was bet down to 3-1 on a day when the track was a bit heavy and listed as "good" after heavy rains on Wednesday. Privateer didn't disappoint his backers.

The wins were only the second and third of the meet for McBride, while the double gave Houghton 14 wins.

* Former jockey Tommy Coleman scored a training double on Thursday, sending out Hickey Lane ($5.60) to take the opener and Fun N Gun ($6) to win the ninth. Coleman has quite a few horses from the Kentucky circuit in his barn and this could well be his best meeting in years.

* Manuel Cruz, who has quietly gotten off to a good start, rode both horses for Coleman and had seven winners at the meeting through Thursday's card.