02/16/2002 12:00AM

Rice on top for all the right reasons

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - As the 2001-2002 Tampa Bay Downs meet approaches its halfway point, Don Rice is well on his way to his sixth local training title. Through Feb. 15 Rice has sent out 18 winners, giving him a seven-win lead over Lynn Scace and Anthony Pecoraro.

While there is a perception that Rice wins titles simply by starting more horses than anybody else, the statistics tell another story.

Rice's horses are winning at a 21-percent clip. And he's not just winning with favorites: The average Rice winner has paid just over $9.

As he has in seasons past, Rice has climbed to the front after starting off a bit slowly. The Rice philosophy with older horses is to bring them along slowly off layoffs. For that reason many of his horses need a race or two before they hit their peak. Many of those runners are in top form now, as 10 of Rice's last 25 starters have won.

Another misconception is that Rice's stable is a claiming horse outfit. The quality of Rice's horses has improved dramatically in recent years. This season he has several top-quality runners, including Guardianofthegate, who won a stakes here on the turf last season, and Silver Trinket, a promising 4-year old who has won her last two starts.

Pecoraro, who has been running horses at Tampa for many years, is also having a bang-up meeting, sending out winners at a stunning 28-percent clip. Others on the leaderboard who are winning at better than a 20-percent rate are Angel Gutierrez (22 percent), Juan Camilo (23), and James Michael (23).

Houghton and the jockey race

T.D. Houghton is slowly pulling away from the competition in the jockeys' race. Houghton, who annually is among the national leaders in races won, has 40 winners through Feb. 15, nine more than Pedro Rodriguez and 13 more than Juan Umana.

One of the surprises in the jockey colony this season is Jesus Castanon. In his first full-time meet here, Castanon has 24 winners. He had an eventful day Tuesday, winning two races on the program, and then escaping serious injury when his mount fell while leading the field into the stretch of the sixth race on the turf.

Fan favorite Danny Scocca has returned for another season. Scocca, one of the leading riders in Detroit for many seasons, works for trainer Kathleen O'Connell in Miami during the summer and fall, and then comes north for the Tampa meeting to ride several of her horses, along with mounts for other clients. Scocca has played a part in the development and education of several top O'Connell runners, including The Goddess Athird, whom he rode to victory in last season's Pinellas Stakes on the turf.