04/27/2002 12:00AM

Rice succeeds without any stars


OLDSMAR, Fla. - The meeting at Tampa Bay Downs swings into its final week and while it seems like only yesterday that the horses were parading to the post for the first race on opening day in truth it has been a winter to remember for some and a time others would just as soon forget.

In the "strong and steady" department, silver-haired trainer Don Rice heads the list.

Through Saturday's program, Rice had 40 wins at the meeting, which ties the track record, a mark that has stood for 18 years. With four racing days left, Rice is almost a cinch to break the record, a fitting reward for a trainer who gets more out of his racing stock than just about anyone. There are no million dollar purchases under the Rice shed row and no multi-million client bankrolling the man who can usually be found around the paddock, a Daily Racing Form stuck in the back pocket of his jeans.

The Rice philosophy stresses blue-collar, hands-on horsemanship and his horses reflect that work ethic. He will give a sore horse or a horse with problems plenty of time. Bettors have learned over the years that few Rice horses are sitting on tilt and ready for top efforts in the first weeks of the meeting. He brings his horses along slowly, but once they're fit and happy, he runs them where they belong and isn't shy about running them back quick if they indicate they can handle it.

Yet Rice boasts a winning rate of around 20 percent with first-time starters, a testament to his versatility. By the time this meet is over, Rice will have won his sixth Tampa training title.

Several other trainers have also had good meetings. Tom Proctor's Glen Hill Stable had 15 wins from just 25 starters, a big meet in anybody's book. Henry Collazo-trained horses won 12 of 33 starts for a 36 percent winning rate. Bruce Alexander had another good meeting, winning 16 races from 46 starters, a 34 percent success rate.

Lynn Scace and Mike Ferraro, who are currently second and third, respectively, in the standings, also did well this winter.

Houghton gets run for his money

Jockey Terry Houghton is having another strong meeting with 86 winners, but left for the opening of Great Lakes Downs in Michigan and he hasn't been able to shake off the riding surprise of the season, Manoel Cruz.

Cruz came in unheralded but his fresh, enthusiastic riding style seems to impart itself to his mounts as he seems to get run out of horses that have failed with many others.

Cruz won three races on Saturday's program, giving him 80 wins with four programs remaining, so the riding title could well come down the final day. Houghton, incidentally, has said he will return to Tampa to ride on the meet's final day.

Derek Bell will be quick to tell you he expected to do better than he has but the defending riding champion simply had a meet where the live mounts were at a minimum after a slow start. Bell heads for Canterbury and slow winter or not, he's still the favorite to win his third straight riding title there.

Other pleasant surprises this winter among the riders were Jesus Castanon, Bobby Walker Jr., and Tommy Pompell. All came in with little fanfare and enjoyed a good measure of success.

One disappointing factor earlier this winter was the inability of bettors to wager on races in Louisiana, Texas, Kentucky, and Illinois as those simulcasting signals were pulled by horsemen's groups in those states in an ongoing dispute between management and horsemen. That problem seems to have been resolved and everyone hopes next season will start with full fields, bigger purses and no distractions to the greatest game played outdoors.

In the past year the local racing fraternity lost Sue Henry, T.J. Geary, and William "Billy" Daniels, good folks and good racetrackers who left us for that spot where you never tear up a ticket too soon.

Jim Read, former columnist and chartcaller for DRF, and the man whose phone call 31 years ago helped get me started in this sport, died from injuries suffered in an auto accident in Ocala, Fla. Thanks for making the call, Jim.