09/19/2003 12:00AM

Apt To Be vulnerable off long layoff

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Chris Block was not speaking Friday like a trainer whose horse just ran the best race of his career. And that's because "just" is a relative term.

It was June 29 when Apt to Be ran roughshod over six opponents in the Grade 3 Hanshin Handicap, winning by seven lengths while running a mile in an excellent 1:34.40. Apt to Be had threatened to burst forth with that kind of performance for three seasons, and finally he had reached a new level. But he has not been seen since.

Soon after the Hanshin, Apt to Be began battling one of the quarter cracks in his hoof that have periodically troubled him. When he runs Sunday in Arlington's featured eighth race, it will be going on three months since his last start.

"It's been a long time between that last race and this one," Block said. "If he'd have followed that up in four weeks, I'd be a lot more confident. I had planned on bringing him back in 30 days. I've just recently been able to put him on a regular breeze schedule."

Apt to Be qualifies for a high-end allowance race with a $100,000 claiming option that drew a field of seven. At seven furlongs, the race is just short of Apt to Be's ideal.

"I think he needs a one-turn mile for his best," Block said. "He likes that long run up the backstretch. Seven furlongs is okay, but a mile is better."

Even at something less than his Hanshin peak, Apt to Be can win again Sunday. His early speed should place him in perfect position stalking the pace of Tonyspal Craig.

Another scenario, however, places Tonyspal Craig loose on the lead, a position he has not yet enjoyed in three races this season, all at short distances. Co-owned and trained by Louie Roussel, Tonyspal Craig has notched all four of his career wins at Arlington, and may have found a spot for another.

Roussel has another contender in Bright Valour, who narrowly earned second Aug. 23 in the $100,000 Arlington Spring. That six-furlong race may have been a touch short for Bright Valour, who won his only seven-furlong start.

Silver Zipper also rates a chance, as does Secret Romeo, the Michigan-bred horse who has won 22 of 39 lifetime starts and is closing in on $800,000 in earnings.

Catalano streak opens huge lead

Wayne Catalano traces things back to June 28. Catalano and his owner, Frank Calabrese, had one horse in that day, Entrepreneurship. He easily won a mid-level claimer, starting a cascade of winners that still are raining down here.

"I guess you could say things have been rolling since then," Catalano said. "We'd lost 25 races in a row before that."

At the time, Catalano was leading the trainer standings with 16 winners from 60 starts. Since then, he has gone 40 for 106, a 38 percent win rate. His 56 wins place him 30 in front of Chris Block, who narrowly held second in the standings entering Friday's races.

Catalano has been especially hot the last two weeks, and won three races here Thursday. "I guess this is what you could call a pretty good summer," he said.

Nicole's Dream buy a beauty

The price Dare to Dream Stable paid for Nicole's Dream last month remains private. Suffice it to say things are working out so far. Nicole's Dream has run two times and won two times since Dare to Dream purchased her and turned her over to the trainer Larry Rivelli, and Thursday she set an Arlington turf course record of 56.38 seconds for about five furlongs.

Nicole's Dream is a 3-year-old filly by the low-level stallion Northern Trend. She once ran for a $7,500 claiming tag, making her eligible for starter allowance races like the one she bossed Thursday, and she handles both dirt and turf. But her strong grass sprint races since coming into Rivelli's care have him thinking big - and far.

"There's a five-furlong grass race over a straight course in Hong Kong we're thinking about," he said. "We're trying to find out how to get invited."

Thursday's win came in lieu of a workout, Rivelli said. "I was looking to get mad at the rider for going so fast, but I watched the replay 10 times and she did it so easily," Rivelli said. "I told the owners we could work her, or we could run and probably make $13,000."

Nicole's Dream is scheduled to run in yet another turf sprint here, the closing day Lazer Show.