01/25/2006 1:00AM

Laudati: Pioneer Empire to strike again

Bill Denver/EquiPhotos
Twist and Pop, with 4 wins in 6 inner-track starts, goes for No. 5 Friday.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - When Pioneer Empire's late run fell a head short in last month's Grade 3 Gravesend Handicap, it provided trainer Kim Laudati what she called "the thrill of my life and the biggest disappointment at the same time."

Dismissed at 45-1 in the Gravesend, Pioneer Empire finished just behind fellow longshot Banjo Picker, who won the race at 47-1.

"I thought we had a huge chance in the race because he's so honest and he always gives 100 percent," Laudati said. "You get beat six inches at the wire, I couldn't believe it."

Pioneer Empire will get a chance to reverse that decision when the 5-year-old gelding runs in Saturday's $65,000 Paumonok at Aqueduct. A win would give Laudati her first stakes victory since she went out on her own three years ago.

Laudati, 37, worked 21 years as an assistant to trainer Gary Contessa. Laudati said the two "had a difference of opinion," and last winter she wound up taking some horses to Gulfstream Park for Frank Generazio.

Laudati then picked up horses from a former client of Contessa's, Our Canterbury Stable. Pioneer Empire was a horse that had caught Laudati's eye when he ran for $25,000 in April. When Laudati saw him running for $16,000 in May, she couldn't resist.

There were three other claims in for Pioneer Empire that day and Laudati won what is known as a four-way shake to get the horse. Laudati noted that Pioneer Empire "was moving tight behind" but otherwise she couldn't find anything wrong with him. She decided to geld the horse.

Since then, Pioneer Empire has not finished worse than fourth from eight starts, earning her new connections $71,350.

"We felt gelding him would loosen him up, give him more space," Laudati said. "It worked out great. But, now it's like, I can't believe I gelded him, my poor horse."

Laudati, who has 11 horses stabled at Belmont Park, believes Pioneer Empire has as good a shot to win the Paumonok as he did the Gravesend.

"He's been improving," she said. "At age 5, technically horses are at the height of their maturity. He's the strongest he's ever been in his life."

Among the horses expected to run in the Paumonok are Banjo Picker, Bishop Court Hill, Redskin Warrior, Super Fuse, Wild Jam, and possibly Spooky Mulder.

Nixon picking the right spots

Justin Nixon's initial winter in New York is working out pretty well.

Nixon, who trains about 25 horses for owner Frank Stronach, has won with three of his first eight starters at the meet.

Nixon, 37, who works most of the year in Canada, has brought down a combination of claimers and allowance horses. He has won a second-level allowance race with Jungle Fighter and two claiming races. Three of his horses have been claimed from him.

"I guess we're running them in the right spots then," Nixon said.

Last winter, Nixon wintered at Mountaineer Park, but the bad winter weather made it difficult to train or run.

"We were looking for a place to winter race that offered good purses and a good facility," Nixon said. "Last year, we went to Mountaineer. The purses were good, but with the winter weather the track came up kind of inconsistent on us. We thought we'd try New York. The purses are very good here for the caliber of horses that we have."

Among the stakes-caliber horses Nixon brought are High Blitz and Navajo Princess. High Blitz is nominated to Saturday's Paumonok, but won't run because of a foot bruise. Navajo Princess could run in an allowance race or be supplemented to the Correction on Feb. 4. Jungle Fighter could run in another allowance race as a prep for the March 4 Stymie Handicap.

Nixon, who credits his assistant Natalie Brinda with much of the barn's success, said it is possible if things continue to go well here, he could stay through the summer.

"Whatever makes Frank happy," Nixon said. "If we continue to be productive and he wants to stay we'll certainly stay."

Lopez injured again

Less than one week after returning from injury, jockey Chuck Lopez is out again.

Lopez suffered a fractured left wrist as the result of a spill in Wednesday's fourth race. The accident happened just three racing days after Lopez returned from an injury that kept him out almost two months. On Nov. 25, Lopez suffered a broken left thumb and a cracked rib in a spill on Aqueduct's main track.

On Wednesday, Lopez was aboard Stevie Ray Gone, who fell over A Song for Hope, who had fallen in deep stretch.

Tony Vega, the rider of A Song for Hope, initially appeared to be the more seriously injured of the two riders when he was removed from the track on a stretcher and taken to North Shore University Hospital, but Vega had no fractures and was reported to be only body-sore.

Coa goes 5 for 6

Eibar Coa, the leading rider at this meet, added to his totals by winning with 5 of his 6 mounts on Wednesday's card. He came within 1 1/2 lengths of going 6 for 6 on the day.

Coa won on four favorites and one longshot. He finished second aboard Heathrow in the feature race in his lone loss. He had one other mount, Mark's Mad at Me, who was scratched at the gate before the fifth race by the track veterinarian.

Coa's wins came in the second on Thunder's Comin ($4.10), the third aboard Saint Jules ($3.90), the sixth on Lightning Stripes ($17), the seventh aboard Toy Thief ($4.50) and the ninth on Gold Gunner ($4.20).

Coa now has 40 wins, six more than Mike Luzzi in second place.

Twist and Pop heads feature

Inner-track lover Twist and Pop returns to her favorite surface Friday when she heads a field of seven entered in an optional claiming race at a mile and 70 yards. The $50,000 race also carries a third-level allowance condition.

Twist and Pop, a 7-year-old mare who is eligible to be claimed for $75,000, is 4 for 6 over the inner track. In her two losses, the trouble lines read "very awkward start." Twist and Pop has not run since winning a similarly conditioned race over the main track on Nov. 23.

Twist and Pop is one five horses in this field coming off a win. She is stretching out from 6 1/2 furlongs to a mile and 70 yards.

Game Card, who makes her first start off a Contessa claim, and Mrs. Doyle, who ran here last Friday, are other contenders in this field.