07/23/2002 12:00AM

After two lean years, Costa's barn flourishes


OCEANPORT, N.J. - You can't miss trainer Frank Costa on the backside of Monmouth Park. Costa is always traveling back and forth from barn 26 to the track in his golf cart, never to be spotted without his trademark unlit cigar in his mouth.

Costa, 68, has been a staple of Monmouth Park for 30 years. Yet in recent seasons, unlike his many trips from the barn to the track every morning, his trips to the winner's circle were infrequent. That is, until this summer.

Costa has won seven races from 58 starts at the current meet. In the last two years, he recorded two wins each summer out of a total 139 starts.

Now on his many round-trips in that golf cart every morning, there are more people stopping Costa, congratulating him. And at the barn, many jockeys' agents have come calling when in previous years it was only a few.

Costa has been around long enough to know these things come in cycles. A native of Italy, he started as a jockey in 1953 before becoming a trainer and winning with his first starter at Monmouth in 1972. He does recognize, though, that this meet is one that may not come along often.

"I've been in horse racing for a long time," Costa said Sunday after saddling My Intrigue to a runner-up finish in the second race, "and this has been a very good meet. I have better quality horses this summer and that's been a big difference."

Costa's barn consists of primarily Jersey-breds. Unlike the past, however, when Costa ran a lot of claiming horses, he now has a solid share of allowance horses. For example, on July 12, Jersey-bred Mary's Nickle, ridden by Carlos Cruz, captured the day's allowance feature over an open field of stakes runners and top filly sprinters.

Last Sunday, 3-year-old My Intrigue ran second in her second career start, an entry-level allowance for statebreds. While in the past Costa's horses have been longshots, My Intrigue went off at 6-5 because of her 7 1/4-length maiden romp on June 29. Leaving the clubhouse and heading towards the paddock, Costa didn't seem disappointed that she ran second.

"She's a very nice filly," he said. "I'll check her out. She probably bled and will need Lasix next time."

'Tranquility' back at best distance

A field of six or seven is shaping up for Saturday's feature, the Grade 3, $100,000 Salvator Mile.

The Richard Paulus-trained Sea of Tranquility, who last year's Salvator, is set to return after a second-place finish in the Skip Away Stakes on June 30. Previously, Sea of Tranquility was an impressive winner of the Frisk Me Now and Jersey Breeders' Handicap. Both those wins were at one mile, and a return to that distance in the Salvator should benefit Sea of Tranquility.

Cat's at Home, winner of the Skip Away, is also expected to return to in the Salvator. A multiple Grade 3 winner last year, the Mark Hennig-trained Cat's at Home is rounding into the form he flashed with the pair of graded-stakes victories last April.

Express Tour, trained by Saeed Bin Suroor and owned by Godolphin Racing, will probably be the favorite. Although his last race was a fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 Tom Fool at Belmont, Express Tour's best race in the U.S. came at one mile in the Grade 2 Jerome Handicap last year. He stalked the early pace in that race and pulled away early for a 5 1/2-length score.

First Lieutenant, second in the Grade 2 Iselin Handicap last year, will make his first of the year on Saturday. He always fires fresh for trainer Phil Oliver, and worked a bullet five- furlongs in 1:00.00 Sunday, the best of 34 that morning.

Tempest Fugit, wire-to-wire winner of the off-the-turf Oceanport Handicap on June 15, is also expected for the race. Gerosa, 4 for 4 lifetime, is possible following an allowance victory July 4, his first race in more than a year.

Declined Amx a wise investment

Declined Amx was claimed for $25,000 at Aqueduct on March 24, 2001, and she has since returned steady dividends for her new connections.

Right after winning easily in the race she was claimed, trainer Robert Klesaris bumped her up to a $50,000 claiming race a month later and she won by more than six lengths. Since then, she has an allowance win and three runner-up finishes in six starts.

After running second on June 20 in a $50,000 claimer at Belmont, her second start of the year, Declined Amx returns to Monmouth in Thursday's featured eighth race, an optional claiming allowance at one mile for fillies and mares. Declined Amx, who will be ridden by Julian Pimentel from post 1, is 2-1-1 in seven starts at Monmouth.

The three-other-than allowance race drew a field of six, and the handicapping angle may be to find the front-runner in the compact field. After Sunday, with speed holding, there seems to be no clear pacesetter in the feature.

Trial Fighter, a stakes winner two years ago, may be that speed horse. She has not run since October, but trainer Alan Seewald has been solid with horses returning from long layoffs this summer.