02/11/2003 1:00AM

Sky Mesa bulking up for return


DELRAY, Fla. - About 45 minutes northwest of Gulfstream Park, and only 10 minutes from the Palm Meadows training center, sits tranquil Palm Beach Downs, a training center with a mere six barns and a couple hundred horses, including the best undefeated 2-year-old colt of 2002 not named Vindication.

This is the home of Sky Mesa, who won all three of his starts last year, and whose 2003 debut is about a month away. His progress was delayed because of a wrenched ankle suffered on the eve of last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Since he has yet to race this year, and has been training far from the madding crowd, his status has been something of a mystery.

"You came for an Elvis sighting," a jovial John Ward Jr., who trains Sky Mesa, said to a visitor Tuesday morning.

Elvis is alive! Sky Mesa worked Tuesday morning, with exercise rider Danny Ramsey aboard. Sky Mesa moved through a steady five furlongs, then galloped out an extra furlong. Ward timed Sky Mesa in 1:04.40, with fractions of 13.60 seconds, 26.20, 39, and 51.60, and he had Sky Mesa galloping out six furlongs in 1:17.

Ward's watch will act as the official watch for this work, because at Palm Beach Downs, trainers are on the honor system. There is no official clocker. There is a sheet of paper in the small office at the finish line of the one-mile oval. Trainers write down the name of the horses they work, and their times, and the sheet gets faxed to Equibase at the end of the day.

Sky Mesa came onto the track shortly before 9 a.m., with Ward's wife, Donna, leading the colt by a shank. Sky Mesa was a physically imposing horse last year, and the months since the Breeders' Cup have served him well. Sky Mesa is handsome and robust. What he needs in the next month is conditioning, to fine tune him for the accelerated race schedule he will be on to make the Kentucky Derby.

Donna Ward supervised the workout on Tuesday. She took Sky Mesa to and from the track, and communicated with Ramsey via walkie-talkie during the drill. This is standard operating procedure for the Wards, who train as a team. On hand to see Sky Mesa was owner John Oxley, and his wife, Debby.

After many months of inactivity, Sky Mesa's return is drawing closer.

"I'm looking forward to it," Oxley said. "It's not that far away now. He's grown a bit everywhere. It seems like he's 20-percent bigger everywhere."

John Ward estimated Sky Mesa now weighs 1,100 pounds.

Ward has not committed to a specific comeback race for Sky Mesa, but considering Sky Mesa should be ready to race in about a month, the two most likely spots seem to be the seven-furlong Swale Stakes at Gulfstream on March 15, or the one-mile Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 16.

Ward has been training at Palm Beach Downs for 10 years. Other trainers who have a string of horses there include Rusty Arnold, Shug McGaughey, and Tom Skiffington. Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps, for whom McGaughey trains, was a visitor on Tuesday.

Busy day for Wards, Oxleys

The shedrow at the Ward barn houses a number of top-class runners owned by the Oxleys, including older horses Booklet and Hero's Tribute, older mare Forest Secrets, turf mare Snow Dance, and promising 3-year-old filly Perfect Story.

Forest Secrets, Hero's Tribute, and Snow Dance also worked five furlongs on Tuesday morning.

Forest Secrets won the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes two years ago. She has not raced since injuring a suspensory ligament in last summer's Go for Wand Stakes.

"Hopefully she's on the comeback trail," John Ward said. "If she hesitates any way along the way, she might be bred."

Hero's Tribute is scheduled to run in Gulfstream's Donn Handicap on Feb. 22.

Snow Dance likely will go to Fair Grounds for the Bayou Handicap on March 1. Booklet is going to run in the New Orleans Handicap the next day, Ward said, "so we might as well take them over there together."

Perfect Story, a half-sister to 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given, was a recent allowance winner at Gulfstream and will face stakes competition in her next start.

Funny Cide breezes

Palm Meadows is a mere five miles from Palm Beach Downs. On Tuesday at Palm Meadows, the 3-year-old colt Funny Cide, who was forced to skip this Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes because of a recent illness, breezed five furlongs in 1:01, the best time of eight at the distance.

"He's had an ongoing lung infection. It's been on and off and on and off," said Barclay Tagg, who trains Funny Cide. "After his last race, he had some gunk, and we had to back off for 10 days and treat it, so he wasn't in perfect shape for the Fountain of Youth."

Tagg said Funny Cide would race next in either the Louisiana Derby on March 9 at Fair Grounds, or the $1 million Florida Derby on March 15 at Gulfstream.

Tagg said he preferred to stay in Florida, but did not want to risk having Funny Cide draw an outside post position, as he did in last month's Holy Bull Stakes. So, Tagg said he may enter Funny Cide in the Louisiana Derby. He can then decide whether to ship there, or roll the dice and wait for the Florida Derby without knowing his post for that race.

Coolbythepool replaced by arch-rival

Trainer Marty Wolfson will be without his top filly and mare handicap performer Coolbythepool in 2003, but it didn't take long for him to fill her shoes.

The multiple-stakes-winning Coolbythepool shipped out earlier this week to begin her life as a broodmare. She will be bred to Montbrook later this season. Her stall was immediately filled by her arch-rival Castlebrook, who was purchased privately by the Town And Country Corp., Coolbythepool's owners, shortly after the 2002 Keeneland November sales.

Coolbythepool and Castlebrook dueled for supremacy while dominating Calder's filly and mare handicap division for three consecutive seasons, meeting 20 times with each filly winning 10 times.

"Naturally we have always had a lot of respect for Castlebrook from her battles with Coolbythepool," Wolfson said. "And she's such a beautiful, eye-catching mare. The plans are to run her one more year and then she'll also be retired as a broodmare.

"I won't run her at Gulfstream. We'll wait until Calder opens and point her for a summer campaign. I was always scared to run against her with Coolbythepool or any of my other fillies and mares, so needless to say I'm really glad to have her in my barn this season."

- Also working at Palm Meadows was the hard-knocking New York-bred Gander, who went six furlongs in 1:16.20 for trainer John Terranova.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch