04/25/2002 12:00AM

Houghton rests on his laurels

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - The king of the hill is playing catch me if you can.

Terry Houghton, who holds a nine-win edge over nearest challenger Manoel Cruz in the battle for leading rider entering Saturday's card at Tampa Bay Downs, has headed north to prepare to defend his riding title at Great Lakes Downs in Michigan.

Houghton won the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 riding titles here and finished second to Derek Bell last season. His agent, Frank "The Greek" Garoufalis, explained the plans of Houghton, who has won 86 races at the current meet.

"Terry will be coming north so we can lay some groundwork for the Great Lakes meeting which opens on April 29," Garoufalis said. "He's very committed to winning the riding title at Tampa, so if things get tight later, he could well come back. We're for sure going to be riding on closing day, May 5."

Garoufalis, who has been an agent since 1964, said that working with Houghton is easy.

"He's an agent's dream," Garoufalis said. "He works hard in the morning and the afternoon. You rarely hear him complain, and he's as competitive as they come. And my other rider, Freddie Mata, is the same way. He works hard all the time. He and Terry work well together. They'll work horses for each other if we get in a bind."

Garoufalis said Great Lakes Downs's schedule, which calls for racing four days a week until July, will make it difficult for Houghton to contend for the national races won title.

"We may ride in Chicago on the dark days until July, but in truth, unless you're someplace where they run 12 or 13 races a day, or you can ride day and night, it's tough to compete for the races won title. For now we'll be happy to finish on top at Tampa and hopefully, defend at Great Lakes."

A Derby entrant from Tampa?

While Tampa Bay Derby winner Equality won't be making the big race on the first Saturday in May, the connections of a 3-year-old who spent the winter on the Tampa Bay Downs backstretch would like to have their runner in this year's Kentucky Derby. But, they will need some luck.

Red Masque, who won Keeneland's Forerunner Stakes over the turf on Wednesday, trained and raced at Tampa this winter, winning a race on both turf and dirt and finishing second, beaten a neck, in the Budweiser Challenger Stakes.

Trainer Danny Hutt, who thought he had a Derby contender in Bunk N Ted until physical problems proved otherwise, said after the Forerunner that he would run Red Masque in the Derby if he can draw into the field. But as the Forerunner is not a graded event, his earnings from that race do not count toward a Derby spot. A number of hopefuls would have to fall by the wayside for Red Masque make the field.