07/18/2001 11:00PM

'Lake' ready to bite back

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Get out the Raid. Dust all the corners. Spray the place with Malathion. Tranquility Lake is cranked up and ready to run in the $400,000 Ramona Handicap on Saturday at Del Mar, and no lousy little spider is going to stand in her way this time.

Last year, the hard-working daughter of Rahy was all dressed up for the Ramona when a black widow found its way into her stall three days before the race. Tranquility Lake got the worst of the encounter, emerging with a fever of 103 and a swollen left foreleg. The spider probably went on to make more spiders.

The incident effectively derailed the meticulous plan set by trainer Julio Canani and owner Marty Wygod that was aimed at nothing less than the championship of the female turf division. Tranquility Lake came back from her bite to win the Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita, but she was not quite up to her Breeders' Cup assignment at Churchill Downs and finished eighth behind Perfect Sting. A subsequent second in the Matriarch provided small consolation.

At that point, under most circumstances, a mare with the reputation of Tranquility Lake would have been retired, bred, and allowed to fade into the background as just one more good horse who was not quite a champion. After 20 starts and three campaigns, she had won six stakes and more than a million dollars in very tough company. Even so, Wygod decided that her memory deserved better.

"I went through the exercise, deciding if we should retire her," Wygod said. "She hadn't started a lot, and she was sound as could be. I thought it was worth the chance, especially with the Breeders' Cup this year at Belmont Park."

The 2001 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf will be run at 10 furlongs instead of 11, as it was at Churchill Downs last November. That will help Tranquility Lake. All that remains is the weather.

"I'm from back there," Wygod said. "I know it can rain hard and for a long time. But New York can also go without rain that time of year. If that happens, the turf can get very firm, and she should love it."

Wygod was lingering outside the Del Mar barns nearest the grandstand, housing the horses of such trainers as Richard Mandella, Dan Hendricks, and Simon Bray. Wygod has runners with all three, in addition to Canani.

"How does this one look?" said Hendricks as he ponied a handsome dark colt under Wygod's nose.

"I don't know," Wygod shot back. "How long have you had him?"

Wygod enjoyed the joke. But it's a wonder he can laugh at all. It has been only a few months since he underwent a nine-hour surgical procedure to arrest the degeneration of vertabrae through the insertion of cadavar bone and titanium rods in his spine. A three-inch scar on his neck marks the spot where the surgical tools gained access.

"I hurt my neck in a riding accident when I was younger," Wygod confessed. "It finally caught up to me. I knew it was time to do something when I started losing the use of my arm and leg."

Wygod recovered well enough this summer to take his family on a video safari in Kenya. One close encounter in particular tested Wygod's surgically improved agility.

"Our guide parked the Range Rover under a tree for a rest stop, and I jumped up on the roof," Wygod said. "That's when I saw it - a huge male lion, resting in some branches, four feet away and looking right at me."

Of course, the lion will get larger and more ferocious as the years go by. But for now, all Wygod can recall is his swift and silent slide off the roof and back into the Range Rover.

"Everyone was surprised I was able to move that fast," he said with a laugh.

Wygod returned from safari last Monday, just in time to witness the successful debut of his off-season project. As a director of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, Wygod took it upon himself to make sure the ruined grass course from last summer was renovated and ready to go. He liked what he saw on opening day, but the real test is how it holds up over the long haul of the seven-week meet.

Tranquility Lake will put the turf to the test in the Ramona against Beautiful Noise and High Walden, one-two finishers in the Santa Ana Handicap at Santa Anita last March, and Janet, winner of the Yerba Buena Handicap at Golden Gate Fields. Italian Oaks winner Timi is also in the mix for Neil Drysdale. But if the insects leave her alone, Tranquility Lake should be 3-5.

"I've always thought that on her best day she could be unbeatable," Wygod said. "It was always a matter of timing, though. Circumstances kept her from proving it to the widest possible audience. Maybe this year we'll get the chance."