06/19/2002 11:00PM

Block did it his way - with confidence and hard work

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - For Chris Block, "just do it" was more than an empty slogan. Still a kid, fresh out of Philo, Ill., he made up his mind to do what he wanted. He wanted to be a horse trainer.

By all accounts, Block has become very good at it. His win percentage stays high and his Arlington meets are especially strong. He trains for Dick Duchossois, Arlington's chairman, and last year Block came up with the best horse he has ever trained, Cashel Castle, who won five of six starts, including the Grade 3 Lafayette, before going to the sidelines this week.

Block trains Cashel Castle for an outside client. For his family - breeders and owners - he trains elite Illinois homebreds. Two of them, Ioya Two and Mystery Giver, turf horses produced by the same mare, have a good chance to win stakes Saturday at the Prairie State Festival.

But it has taken time, especially in the closed world of the backstretch, for Block to overcome the perception that his career was based more on good fortune than on his fierce desire and talent.

Now 35, Block took out a trainer's license in 1989. Do the math - he was 22. He hadn't grown up working with racehorses. There was no long apprenticeship with a wise old trainer. His resume included equine courses at a two-year college and work as a groom for trainer Bill Mott.

"I felt I could do a good enough job for myself and learn from my mistakes," Block said. For most people, that wouldn't be enough to land a job.

But in his corner, Block had his father. David Block came from an Illinois farming family, but left as a young man to practice accounting in Phoenix and returned as a rising businessman with a taste for owning racehorses.

"Chris seemed hooked on racing from the first time he went to Fairmount Park," David Block said. "I tried to discourage him from it, really."

No use, and when he saw his son's seriousness, Block quickly got behind him.

"I'd had my share of trainers, some good, some bad," said Block. "I was bound and determined that if I was going to stay in the business, it was going to be with Chris as a trainer."

Chris Block started out in Kentucky, with six of his father's 2-year-olds. He had a rough outline of how things should go, but no more. "I really didn't know when one was ready," Block said. "I probably over-trained all six of them."

No question, Block was green, "a farm boy," as one acquaintance recalled. People who knew him then remember how little he knew - and how badly he wanted to learn.

Block has a big, open face. Talk to him for even a few minutes, and you feel he can't help being honest. It's also quickly clear how careful he is, how focused on every aspect of his job. In his immaculate barn office everything has a place. As one of his horses goes onto the track he stares intently at its gait and posture, even in a light jog.

Block is intensely competitive. Getting started, he mixed patience with a desire to win and a fear that he wouldn't get things right.

"He was a little unsure of himself for a long time," David Block said.

Block agrees. "I didn't have the confidence," he said. "Early on, I was putting too much pressure on myself. I felt the weight."

There was the internal anxiety, and there was the knowledge that some racetrackers resented his having a source of horses that wouldn't dry up if he struggled. In the gossipy racetrack universe, Block heard talk that he didn't know what he was doing. If a horse was claimed from him and came back to win, people would have something to say.

" 'Well, Block lost another one.' I've heard that one before," he said.

Block admits he might have given up on some horses too soon. Without a history of managing a horse's problems, it was impossible to know how much he could help a horse improve. But there was another reason people liked to claim from him - his horses were (and are) generally in such good shape.

"We take good care of them," Block said. "I try to look at the long term. I stay out of their legs as much as I can. If we can manage them without going into their legs, we'll do it."

And really - if Block loses a horse and it still has some value, is that a failure or a success?

Block can view the whole situation in a different light now - he's proven to himself he can train. As his fortunes have risen, so have his family's. The Blocks have 60 horses and a training farm in Florida to go with their Illinois farm. They will sell the right horse at auction and their racing stock is improving all the time. Mystery Giver could be a graded stakes horse this year, and his older sister, Ioya Two, won a graded stakes last year.

Be sure - both will come to the races in top shape Saturday. "I know I can get a horse ready to run," Block said. "I've learned one thing. There's only so much you can do. You can't make them faster. You get one ready, then it's up to the rider, the horse, and luck."