09/23/2002 12:00AM

Call them the Chicago Three

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - This is the summer of Calabrese, Catalano, and Leving, three guys who have grabbed the Arlington meet, shaking down wins like falling fruit.

Theirs is a tightrope act with a potentially volatile mix of personalities, but it is working.

Frank Calabrese has been Chicago's leading owner the last three seasons; Wayne Catalano is a former jockey and Calabrese's private trainer; and Steve Leving, handicapper extraordinaire, is the racing manager. They won races in bunches during June, went slack in late July, and started rolling again in August with no sign of letting up.

Through Saturday, Catalano has 45 wins from 127 Arlington starters (a 35 percent win average) and has built an insurmountable lead over Jerry Hollendorfer, who edged him for last year's training title. Hollendorfer started this year's meet loaded for bear but just last week sent 20 horse back to northern California, basically conceding the training title.

The race for leading owner is a walkover. Calabrese, 11th-leading owner in the country by wins, leads his closest pursuer here by 34 wins, 47 to 13.

The 73-year-old Calabrese craves action, and Catalano and Leving are giving it to him. The freewheeling operation claims horses as quickly as it loses them, imports runners from Europe, and buys privately on the Arlington grounds. Their credo: Put horses where they can win. "You can't waste starts," Catalano said.

The stable, which typically numbers about 40 horses, has focused more on claimers this summer than had been expected, and to win so many races Catalano and Leving have often dropped horses sharply in class. Critics say this is the easy route. Catalano and Leving ask: Why isn't everyone else doing it? Besides, those class droppers don't often come back to burn Calabrese, and the stable always is open to class jumps with the right animal.

The Trainer

A New Orleans kid who went to work for the legendary Jack Van Berg as a teenager, Catalano often seems to operate on pure instinct. And, they do call him Cat.

He's affable, a barely bottled enthusiasm mixing with a powerful competitive streak. When he locked up the 2000 Arlington training title, Catalano catapulted through the grandstand, high-fiving and hugging strangers. He had won several titles at Chicago's other tracks, but badly wanted the validation of an Arlington crown. "That was the icing on the cake," he said.

Things can be tough working for Calabrese. He has fired Catalano before and demands a lot of his employees. "I can take the pressure," Catalano said last summer.

Clearly. Catalano's been a successful trainer for more than 15 years, but he hit his peak just a few years ago. "When you learn patience, you learn to be a trainer," he said. "You want to enter the horses so bad. But you have to wait."

It's easy to imagine Catalano grappling with the cultivation of patience. His whole bearing is about action. His walk still is the strut of a cocky teenager. But sometimes cracks show. He reflects briefly on mistakes at this meet, and even with events weeks old you sense fresh disappointment.

"I get the feeling that Wayne doesn't always say what's on his mind," Calabrese said.

Once a top rider, the 46-year-old Catalano still rides prospective purchases and is the final arbiter on a horse in the barn that might be going bad.

"When the [exercise] boys come back and tell me something's not quite right, I get on the horse the next day," Catalano said.

Catalano has an expert feel for the way a horse moves - it's instinct. One of Catalano's strong points is knowing when to drop a horse in class just before its form deteriorates, or when to move one up.

Everything goes back to the same philosophy: Make every start count. "I don't believe in giving horses races," he said. "You train to win. We don't have 50 or 60 head to choose from. I don't have backups. We have to fight and scratch and maneuver."

The Stable Manager

Maneuvering is where Steve Leving came in.

Leving's the smart guy you always run into at your local simulcast parlor. He's the articulate, engaging, and obsessive guy who's filled with arcane systems. As much as he knows, you wonder if he wins.

But Leving is more than that. He has landed a job in racing because he's just a little bit sharper - and because he wanted this so much.

Once a 16-year-old gofer for Chicago turf celebrity Dave Feldman, Leving bounced through all kinds of racing jobs, most notably as a successful jockey agent, but he also found time to get a degree in computer programming.

That's no surprise, since Leving's mind churns in mathematical terms. Leving has his own computer programs, complex grids for attacking serial wagers like the pick six. A heavy smoker, he's also a serial talker who shuns small talk for lengthy discourse on his favorite subject - horses.

But Leving's obsessions are what make him good. Leving had helped Calabrese and other investors craft big pick six scores, and Calabrese was impressed enough to bring him on board three years ago.

Catalano and Leving can bicker, but they have clicked. "I love Stevie," Catalano said. "Anybody that can read grass pedigrees and numbers like that is going to be an asset to the operation. I'm a horse trainer."

Leving pores over Daily Racing Form, Ragozin sheets, and condition books, picking out potential claims and plotting future entries. "If you've read the Racing Form for 36 years, some things start to jump out at you," he said.

Leving says he enters horses like a jock's agent picks up live mounts. "The horse is third for $10,000," he said. "I could ride him for $7,500, but I'd really love to ride him if he's in for $5,000. That's the way I enter. People say, 'Well, Calabrese has a lot of money. You get to drop them in class.' I say, 'You try it.' You have to enter. You can't be afraid to run."

The Owner

Frank Calabrese critics are not in short supply. His personality can swerve to the acerbic without warning. In 20 years of owning racehorses, Calabrese said he has gone through about 20 trainers. When things don't go his way, people around him hear about it.

But the critics may not see another side of the man. Calabrese loves kids, and when he isn't holding a handful of mutuel tickets, you just might find him holding a baby. Calabrese can quickly lash out, but he can also be generous. Calabrese has the owner title at Arlington sewn up, but he's still pushing now because he wants badly for Catalano to win the training title.

Calabrese conquered the business world so long ago that he turned to horses as a way to channel his competitiveness. Calabrese went to work in the paper business at age 11. According to Calabrese, his mother spurred him on, pushing him to become a millionaire before he was 30. He made it at 29.

His printing company, FCL Graphics, is a booming success, but Calabrese spends more time at the track than at work. "It takes my mind off business," he said.

Calabrese has owned top-class horses such as Silver Maiden and Exclusive Praline, and though this summer has been more about claiming than stakes, Calabrese may wind up going the high-quality route again before long. Still, he remains a grandstand, not a clubhouse, guy.

"I like the people that hang out on the rail," he said, "not the people upstairs. And I love Arlington."

It seems to love him, too. Sitting in a prominent section of the grandstand or standing along the paddock rail, Calabrese is showered with greetings. Everyone knows Frank, and Frank knows everyone. At this point, it's hard to imagine Arlington without him.

Calabrese runs more horses here than anyone, wins more races, and his entries always seem to create a buzz, most of the time getting bet down to desperately short odds. The whole track is playing with him. And if the idea is to get with a winner, the crowd has found their winner in Catalano, Leving, and Calabrese.

"What else is there?" Calabrese wanted to know.