02/14/2003 1:00AM

Man in saddle big asset for Man From Wicklow


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - At the half-mile pole of the Dec. 28 W.L. McKnight Handicap, trainer Rick Violette thought the frustrations his Man From Wicklow had experienced in graded stakes company all year long were going to continue.

After steadying early, Man From Wicklow was farther off the pace than Violette had anticipated. A slow pace further complicated matters and had Violette thinking back to past near-hits in such Grade 1 events at the Sword Dancer Invitational and Man o' War Handicap.

"At the half-mile pole I thought he wasn't going to get it done that day, either," Violette said.

But then the ultimate ace in the hole - Jerry Bailey - got to work. Bailey extricated Man From Wicklow from trouble and helped Man From Wicklow unleash a powerful stretch run that got him to the wire first in the Grade 2 McKnight.

"Jerry can go to plan B and C and still make it work," Violette said.

Bailey will try to make it work again Sunday when Man From Wicklow aims for his first Grade 1 in the $200,000 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Handicap, a race Bailey has won six times. Man From Wicklow is part of a field that includes the defending Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup winner, Cetewayo, and the powerful one-two punch of Riddlesdown and Della Francesca from the Niall O'Callaghan barn. Riddlesdown and the Bill Mott-trained Stokosky will be coupled, as they are both owned by Gary Tanaka.

Though he came from far back in the McKnight, Man From Wicklow can succeed from a stalking position as well.

Cetewayo sprung an 18-1 upset in this race last year when he made his 8-year-old debut off a three-month layoff. Saturday, he makes his 9-year-old debut off a similar layoff, but doesn't figure to be quite as generous a price. Cornelio Velasquez, who was aboard for last year's win, has the call again.

Riddlesdown, who won the Mac Diarmida Handicap with a gate-to-wire performance here on Jan. 19 at 28-1, is the one to catch. O'Callaghan said Riddlesdown is not the type of front-runner who would benefit from slowing the pace down.

"He has to have a strong pace all the way the way," O'Callaghan said. "If there's no pace, then he is the pace, whereas [for Della Francesca] it doesn't matter if they go fast or slow.''

Whata Brainstorm, who finished second in this race in 2001, and Rochester, third in the McKnight two back, have an upset chance.