02/14/2002 1:00AM

No case of wintertime blues in 2002


NEW ORLEANS - For the last 13 winters Tony D'Amico has been huddled up keeping warm, grinding out a good living during a Turfway Park winter meet situated at the corner of Bleak and Gloomy. But northern Kentucky has given way this year to lush south Florida, and D'Amico's staple of Turfway winter claimers to a trio of heavy-hitting 3-year-olds.

This is the weekend it all comes together for D'Amico. He rides Harlan's Holiday Saturday in the Grade 1 Fountain of Youth, then travels to Fair Grounds to ride Repent, who will be the favorite in Sunday's Grade 3 Risen Star Stakes. Because of Harlan's Holiday, D'Amico misses the mount Saturday on Take Charge Lady, a filly he has ridden in all five of her career starts and one of the favorites in the Grade 3 Silverbulletday here at Fair Grounds.

These three horses, all trained by Ken McPeek, are the sole reason D'Amico has left Turfway, a track at which he has won four riding titles dating back to 1987. D'Amico, 46, is at a point in his career when most journeymen already have hit their ceiling, but he has gotten the break of a lifetime.

D'Amico said he has worked closely with McPeek's operation for about three years. "He's got confidence in me and I've got confidence in him as a trainer," D'Amico said. "Kenny and the owner have stuck with me, and I commend them for that. They could get any heavy-head they wanted for these horses."

D'Amico took heat for his ride on Repent in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall, which Repent wound up winning by 1 1/4 lengths. D'Amico said he wanted to save ground in the race, and while he was inside, Repent got bottled up behind other horses, shaking loose only in the final furlong.

But D'Amico said riding under a microscope doesn't bother him.

"I go out and do the best I can," D'Amico said. "I'm not worried about the pressure. I've been riding for 27 years, and I've been hired and fired before. If you put pressure on yourself, you're not going to do any good."

It helps to have a horse as good as Repent underneath you. A winner in three of his five starts and second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Repent will solidify his position as one of the nation's top 3-year-olds with a win in the Risen Star, his first start of the year.

"When you get on one of the good horses like him, you can tell," D'Amico said. "I've worked my whole career to get these horses. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance."

Repent, Take Charge Lady get familiar

Two days after shipping here from McPeek's Gulfstream base, Take Charge Lady and Repent got their first feel for the Fair Grounds track Thursday. Take Charge Lady galloped at about 7 a.m., while Repent was out for light exercise following the 8:30 renovation break.

With assistant trainer Helen Pitts aboard, Repent, his coat glowing and dappled, jogged two miles the wrong way (clockwise) around the track. Twice, on straightaways, Pitts let him break into an easy gallop. "He likes to do that," she said. Repent will have an actual gallop at the same time the next two mornings before racing on Sunday.

Pitts said Repent, already a seasoned traveler, enjoys training in new surroundings. "I really think he enjoys it," she said. "He was looking around at everything. He felt super."

No shortage of pace in Risen Star

A late runner who should benefit from the long Fair Grounds stretch, Repent figures to get plenty of pace to chase in the 1 1/16-mile Risen Star, which was given Grade 3 status for the first time this year. War Emblem, the pacesetter in the Jan. 26 Lecomte, is likely to run back for trainer Bobby Springer, while gate-to-wire allowance winner Bob's Image and Sky Terrace will add fuel to the fire.

Springer said the lightly raced War Emblem, a winner in both of his dirt starts before the Lecomte, might be taken off the pace on Sunday.

Making his first start in two months, War Emblem held on well after giving up the lead in the Lecomte and was beaten only two lengths.

"He's got a world of talent if he can just learn to put it together," said Springer, who trains War Emblem for owner Russell Reineman. "He needed to get that last race in him."

Bob's Image, trained by Dallas Stewart, has led at every call in a pair of route allowance wins at this meet, and his connections feel he is best when running freely on the lead. But he will have to outfoot the talented and speedy Sky Terrace on Sunday.

Sky Terrace finished 2 1/2 lengths behind Repent after setting the pace during his stakes and two-turn debut in the Nov. 24 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. In the Lecomte, he was bumped soundly from both sides coming out of the gate, raced wide around the first turn, and didn't make the lead until the backstretch.

His trainer, Vickie Foley, expects that with a clean break, Sky Terrace will be on the lead this time. "We're going to let him do what he does best," she said.

Foley said Sky Terrace had a good work here on Monday and is thriving physically, and though both of his wins have come in sprints, she believes Sky Terrace can excel in distance races, too. "He's a long, lanky horse. I think we'll be all right," said Foley.