02/14/2004 1:00AM

A trainer asks, wherefore art thou?


OLDSMAR, Fla. - Secret Romeo admirers, and there are more than a few around, were puzzled when the 6-year-old came up short after looking like a winner a furlong out in both the Pelican Stakes on Dec. 27 and a Jan. 10 allowance prep for the Super Stakes.

Among those at a loss to explain why the veteran was hanging during the crucial stages of his races was his trainer, Gerald Bennett. Bennett went so far as to take the blinkers off Secret Romeo, the winner of 22 races, for the Super Stakes on Jan. 24. But when Secret Romeo broke slowly and then raced like an unhappy camper during that race, finishing seventh, the trainer decided it was time to take a closer look.

"We had the vet go over him with a fine-toothed comb and found that he had an inflammation and swelling in the throat which was constricting his air passages," Bennett said.

In addition, said Bennett, he had equipped Secret Romeo with a figure-eight nose band, "which sort of bowed his head when he ran, and that didn't help his air passages any."

Bennett said he will give Secret Romeo all the time he needs to get over his problems and hopes to get him back in action before the meet ends.

Secret Romeo came into the Super Stakes with career earnings of $825,414.

Horses for courses no cliche here

One of the most important things a handicapper working Tampa Bay Downs races should do is check a horse's local record, whether it be on the main track or the turf course.

This track has a particular dirt surface that some horses just love while others just hate. The same holds true for the turf course, as there are some turf runners who languish in obscurity racing at other tracks, then come to life when they return to the Tampa grass.

One horse having a blazing love affair with the infield course this season is Improvised, a 4-year-old daughter of Dove Hunt who became the winningest horse at the current stand last Tuesday when she scored her fourth straight win and third over the grass here. Racing in the Tampa Turf Test, a starter handicap series for fillies and mares who have started for a claiming price of $16,000 or less in 2002-04, Improvised simply plays catch-me-if-you-can, usually leading from start to finish. Last Tuesday she opened a long lead a furlong out, then had enough left to hold off a furious late run from Rizzi Girl, another female with a distinct fondness for this course.

That victory ran Improvised's earnings for the meeting to $45,355.