08/20/2004 12:00AM

At 48, he's the comeback kid


FARMINGTON, N.Y. - As Chris Englehart likes to put it, he didn't come to the racetrack, but the racetrack came to him.

Englehart, the leading trainer at Finger Lakes this meet, was born in Canandaigua in 1955. Seven years later Finger Lakes opened its doors in Farmington, about seven miles north of Canandaigua. It did not take long for Englehart to begin coming to this small track - first as a young fan betting $2 win tickets, then as a hotwalker, and eventually as a trainer when he turned 18.

Englehart, 48, is on pace to shatter the record for most wins in a season (107), set by Michael S. Ferraro in 1977. Right now, he has 77 wins at the meet, which runs until Nov. 23. Last year, Englehart won the training title with 95 wins.

The story behind Englehart's success runs deep and is a good example of the road taken by trainers at small racetracks to make ends meet.

Englehart took out his trainer's license at the youngest age possible, 18, and achieved quick success. By the age of 30, when many trainers are still honing their skills as assistants, Englehart had already won his first Finger Lakes training title in 1985 and replicated that feat two years later.

Yet the next decade brought what Englehart calls "leaner years." The purses here were very low and the long-run solvency of Finger Lakes came into question. In 2001, Englehart's main owner, Sam Morrell, died, and within three months his stable of 28 horses had been liquidated.

"I came back to start the meet here, and there were empty stalls that I couldn't fill," Englehart said at his barn last week.

Though his family - his wife and six children - had always been an essential and often defining part of his stable, its role was never more important than it was during these rough patches. Sheila Englehart gallops the horses and is instrumental in all facets of the barn's operations. Their oldest sons - Jeremiah, 27, and Jesse, 25 - pitched in during these years and have since taken on larger roles. Jeremiah is a public trainer at Aqueduct and Jesse runs the family's farm in Shortsville, N.Y. The four younger children also work at the barn.

"We have always had ready-made help when the children were young," Chris Englehart said. "When we couldn't afford to hire help during the lean years, we could always count on them to help around the barn."

Englehart had no idea his fortunes would turn around so quickly. In 2002, Brian Mandryk, a friend of Englehart's who breeds horses at his farm in Rome, N.Y., recommended Englehart to Karakorum Farm racing syndicate. Karakorum Farm, which was started in 1994 and races exclusively New York-breds, was looking for a new person to train its second string at Finger Lakes.

Karakorum Dixie is a prime example of a horse who has appreciated the lighter competition here. After languishing in claiming and statebred races at Belmont, the 4-year-old gelding was shipped to Englehart last October. Since then, he has won seven consecutive races here, moving through the claiming ranks to starter and statebred allowances.

"It's been a very good relationship for us," said Josh Bauman, the director of sales at Karakorum. "Chris is extraordinary as a trainer. He is very aggressive in dropping horses into the right spots."

Much of Englehart's success has stemmed partly from his work for Karakorum. He estimates that 15 of his 95 wins last year were for Karakorum. This year, he trains only six horses for Karakorum, but his success with the syndicate has helped him get new owners.

Englehart said that he now has about 30 different owners, most of whom own one or two horses. Also, he was quick to credit Billy Terrell, who runs Ebert Van Line, in helping to provide him with new clients since they met three years ago.

At the time of Englehart's resurgence and as his barn expanded, the possibility of slot machines coming to Finger Lakes were increasing. With the potential for higher purses, Englehart and his family decided to purchase a farm last winter in Shortsville, seven miles from the racetrack. The farm was necessary to accommodate 45 horses of Englehart's expanded stable of 75, but the purchase was risky and depended on higher purses from slots revenue.

"We took about six months to make the decision," Sheila Englehart said. "We had to decide, 'Do we really want to be in debt again?' But it has been a big asset for our business."

The gamble has paid off. Since slot machines were installed here in February, daily overnight purses have increased from $62,000 one year ago to $97,000. The fields are also larger and the quality of racing has improved. And the Engleharts have been there to capitalize.

Only three years ago, Chris Englehart was unsure if he would be able to fill many of his stalls. Now he is unsure how he will be able to find enough stalls for all his horses.

"I would like to get additional stalls in Pennsylvania or West Virginia," Englehart said with a smile. "I just have too many horses right now."