05/06/2003 11:00PM

Catalano benefits by rival's absence

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - It was never easy for Jerry Hollendorfer to get to Arlington. Hollendorfer, northern California's perennial leading trainer, basically flew an entire stable here the last two meets, lured by the prospect of diversification and grass racing he couldn't find enough of at his home base during summer months.

But this summer Hollendorfer plans to split his stable between northern and Southern California, with Arlington out of the picture. That's a big void, both for the track and for trainer Wayne Catalano.

Two seasons ago, when he won the Arlington training title, Hollendorfer ran more horses here than any trainer except Tom Tomillo. Last year, with 180 starters, Hollendorfer had more starts than all but two outfits.

"It's an impact, for sure," said Frank Gabriel, Arlington's racing secretary and executive vice president of racing. "But it's a decision he made, and there's really nothing you can do about it."

For Catalano, Hollendorfer's absence means the loss of a foil. Catalano and Hollendorfer nurse serious competitive streaks, and each man, while publicly respectful of the other, burned to lead the Arlington trainer standings. After losing the title to Hollendorfer in 2001, Catalano got it back last year.

"Last year, coming into this place, I had my game face on from start to finish," Catalano said. "I knew it was going to be a fight."

Catalano and his sole owner, Frank Calabrese, had a remarkable meet. Calabrese won the owners' title with 66 wins, 50 more than the second-leading owner. Catalano won at a 35 percent clip, with 64 of 180 starters.

Catalano has sobering news for Arlington rival trainers - his stable is coming into this meet better than last year. "We've got more stalls and more horses than we've ever had before," he said. "I think we're going to be all right."

Among the horses in Catalano's Arlington barn is Fight for Ally, who won the Grade 3 National Jockey Club Handicap at Hawthorne last month and may run Saturday in the $100,000 Black Tie Affair Handicap.

New face of management

Arlington received a management makeover during the off-season, when president Steve Sexton departed for Churchill Downs and racing secretary Dave Bailey declined to return after finding year-round employment with Gulfstream Park. Cliff Goodrich was hired as Sexton's replacement, while Frank Gabriel's position here shifted from vice president of racing and operations to vice president of racing and racing secretary. Ted Nicholson, named vice president of administration, assumed many of the operations responsibilities.

From accounts inside the track hierarchy and out, the transition has been fairly seamless. Sexton remained at Arlington to help ease Goodrich into his job, since Goodrich, a former president of Santa Anita, needed a crash course in Illinois racing.

"I think things have gone very well, never having been through anything like this," Goodrich said. "I was lucky. I had Steve here for those months. I knew it would be a bit overwhelming at first, and it was, but I thought over time the fog would clear, and it did."

As vice president of racing, Gabriel already played an active role in day-to-day racing operations, though that position is enhanced now by his move to the secretary's position.

Gabriel has pushed through a couple of changes this season. He's instituted a starter rewards program, a prize-driven incentive for horsemen to run their stock frequently. Also, Arlington has switched from a 48-hour to a 72-hour draw schedule, meaning programs are carded three days in advance rather than two.

Lukas returns after 13 years

Thirteen years after he last ran a string at Arlington, trainer D. Wayne Lukas was allotted 25 stalls this season in Barn 16. The Lukas operation, making the transition from spring to summer, is shuttling horses between Chicago, New York, and Kentucky. But once his barn is settled, Lukas plans to fill his stalls and stay active at this meet.

"We'll have a little bit of everything here, a real mix of 2-year-olds and maidens and a lot of horses with allowance conditions," said Lukas's Arlington assistant Greg Falk. "We're hoping we can get some black type out of some of these horses. The competition here could be a little more in our favor."

A barn away from Lukas, Godolphin Racing will have 20 horses stabled under the direct supervision of Davey Duggan, an assistant to trainer Eoin Harty. Godolphin has sent 2-year-olds to Arlington the last two meets, but this is the first year any older horses have been stabled here. In addition to his regular complement of 2-year-olds, Duggan also has several 3-year-old maidens in his care.

Meier back from injury

Randy Meier, injured in a March 3 spill only two days into the National Jockey Club meet at Hawthorne, will return to race riding here on opening day. Meier, who turns 49 this summer, had been out with a broken arm.

Helping Meier is new agent, Justin Cassity, who had jockey Shane Laviolette's book the last several years.