02/23/2004 1:00AM

Ardoin's training job fits into Turf Express expansion plan

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Oaklawn has played a pivotal role in the life of Ronald Ardoin, who on Saturday said he has retired from race riding and will train young horses for a major-league Thoroughbred operation being launched in east Texas by Turf Express Inc.

Ardoin, 46, won one of the biggest races of his career at Oaklawn in 1996, when he guided Zarb's Magic to win the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby over eventual Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone. Oaklawn also was the site of what turned out to be Ardoin's final career win, No. 5,226, on March 7, 2003.

Later on that card, Ardoin injured a tendon in his left wrist in a gate mishap, which ultimately was one of the factors that led to his retirement. But with the close of one career came an opportunity to train, an occupation that suits the horse-savvy Ardoin.

"Ronald is one of the smartest guys I know," said Mark Cornett, president of Turf Express. "And he knows 2-year-olds. He is so good with young horses. He always has been."

Ardoin signed on as farm trainer last Friday, and will initially oversee about 45 young horses and layups. The young horses will be broken and dispersed to trainers around the country.

"I wouldn't have gotten on board if I didn't see a bright future for the operation, as well as myself," said Ardoin. "Mark has a great plan set up."

Turf Express is a corporate entity owned by private stockholders. Its subsidiaries include Grade 1 Transport, which deals in equine shipping; Thoroughbred Exchange, which covers the sales market, as far as pinhooking and sales prepping; and Turf Express Stud.

Turf Express also has 75 horses racing at tracks around the country, and it recently brought on trainer Wayne Catalano. He will have operations at Arlington and Mountaineer. Other trainers who have horses for Turf Express include Cole Norman, Steve Asmussen, Jerry Hollendorfer, and Ted H. West.

Turf Express is in the process of adding another 50 horses to its racetrack operations and is in negotiations to purchase a farm in California. There also is interest in purchasing a farm in a northeastern market, possibly New York.

At the more than 400-acre Texas farm, Turf Express is setting up its breeding and training operation. New Trieste, a brother to Old Trieste, is one of two new stallions in place. Turf Express stands him in partnership with Daniel Borislow, owner of Toccet. As for broodmares, Turf Express has recently purchased 50 from auctions at Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton.

"The long-term business plan for Turf Express is to develop into a national owner and breeder," said Cornett, 39.

Up until now, Turf Express has been known as a racing stable competing mostly in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Last year, the stable won 148 races and $2.5 million. Its best horses include Eagle Lake, a multiple stakes winner who was recently sold at auction for $200,000, and Wacky Patty, who will make her next start in the Grade 2 Forward Gal at Gulfstream on March 13.

Cornett, who turned his attention to racing full time after selling his roofing business, formed Turf Express with five horses in 1997, the same year Lone Star Park opened near his native Dallas.

Ardoin, who was the leading rider at Lone Star in 1997, is considered one of the most accomplished riders ever produced by jockey-rich Louisiana. A native of Carencro, La., his mounts earned $58.9 million during his 30-year career. He is the all-time leading rider at Louisiana Downs, and has won more stakes at that track than any other rider, with 158. Ardoin has also won six titles at Louisiana Downs, and another six at Fair Grounds.

He has been married to his wife, Patti, for 28 years. They have a 22-year-old daughter, Natalie, who is a track photographer at Lone Star and Louisiana Downs.

"They're the proudest accomplishments in my life," he said. And he wanted to make sure they backed him in his new career.

"A big part of it was them being behind me," he said. "They are 100 percent, and I am looking forward to putting out some quality horses."

Day to ride Tiger Hunt in Rebel

Pat Day will ride Tiger Hunt in the Grade 3 $200,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 20, and Shadowland in the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby on March 7, said Ralph Nicks, private trainer for Team Valor.

Day rode Tiger Hunt in his last start, when he finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Oct. 25. Tiger Hunt has been working at Oaklawn for his return, and on Sunday went five furlongs in 1:01.60 under assistant trainer Shannon Purcell.

The colt wore blinkers for the work in an effort to improve his focus. Nicks was pleased with how things went, but said he wants to work Tiger Hunt back in blinkers before making a final decision on whether the colt will wear them in the Rebel.

The race will be Tiger Hunt's first start at 3.

"He's coming along quickly," said Nicks.

Shadowland worked six furlongs in a bullet 1:14.20 on Sunday. In his last start, he was second in the Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds.