07/10/2001 11:00PM

Carava is in front with wire in sight

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Monday's closing day of the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting cannot arrive soon enough for Jack Carava.

Through Wednesday, Carava was the top trainer at the meeting with 21 winners, leading Bob Baffert by four and Richard Mandella by five. While those stables are capable of winning several races in a short period of time, Carava is optimistic he can hold on and score his first training title.

He has runners throughout the weekend, including Simple Play in Friday's fourth race, his lone starter on the eight-race program.

For Carava, 35, whose stable consists mostly of claiming stock, winning the training title would be the landmark achievement of his 15-year career.

"If it all works out, it's one of several goals you give yourself as a trainer," Carava said. "Once it got close [to the end of the meet], a few people mentioned it, and now I've gotten caught up in it."

This meeting is annually Carava's best chance at a title. He focuses on the meeting, while Bob Baffert, who usually leads the standings at Del Mar and the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting, does not.

"I've had several horses in the barn that have won twice," Carava said. "A lot of horses got good at this meet and that really helps. I've got one groom who rubs four horses and all his horses won twice at this meet.

"I hope I can hold on. I don't have a lot to run, but one or two a day. They have chances, but no slam dunks."

Simple Play has been sixth in all three of his starts this year, but is making his debut for Carava, who claimed him for $10,000 on July 15 for owners Ron and Pansy Sprague. Simple Play was beaten 9 1/2 lengths that day, a performance that left Carava confused.

"He's been training awesome," Carava said. "But it looked like he was training good before we claimed him."

On Friday, Simple Play will be ridden by Martin Pedroza, who through Wednesday was fifth in the jockeys' standings. Simple Play drew post 10 in the $8,000 claimer, which is run over seven furlongs. A 4-year-old, Simple Play will be attempting to end an eight-race losing streak.

Carava says that a successful Hollywood Park meeting will not necessarily translate into a poor Del Mar. "I could have any kind of meet," he said. "Golden Eagle [Farm] has supplemented me with a lot of horses from the Bay Area. I've got a lot of different horses."