05/13/2008 12:00AM

Catalano extends hot hand to new rider

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Ten-pound apprentice rider Brandon Meier made his career debut in the fourth race last Sunday at Arlington Park. Meier was giving up mountains of experience to the other jockeys in the race, and he even wound up - through no fault of his own - getting into a seriously tough spot about a half-mile from the finish line. But those impediments were no match for the force of nature in young Meier's corner - trainer Wayne Catalano.

Catalano concluded week 2 of the Arlington meet with an epic 12 winners from only 17 starters. Catalano and owner Frank Calabrese always seem to start Arlington hot - but this is ridiculous. Moreover, only two of Catalano's starters have not finished third or better.

Among the can't-miss runners in that hail of winners was Houseboat. You could say Meier guided him to victory, or vice versa, but it all worked out quite well for Meier, the 19-year-old son of 53-year-old jockey Randy Meier.

"I'm really thankful that Wayne Catalano and Frank Calabrese gave me a shot," Meier said after his debut win. "We were in a little tight, but I found a little opening, and the horse took it from there."

Yes, both Meier on Houseboat and Chris Emigh on Robin Cart got in a tight spot going into the far turn. The difference was Robin Cart wound up fourth, and Houseboat wound up winning by four.

Meier, who at his father's insistence went to college for a year before turning to the track, has been working with Catalano since last summer, the latest in a series of young jockeys Catalano, a former rider himself, has mentored. Catalano has not forgotten his youth in New Orleans, when he went to work at Fair Grounds knowing next to nothing about racehorses.

"I had the opportunity with [Jack] Van Berg and those guys who taught me how to do it," Catalano said. "If I can help someone, I don't mind doing it."

Catalano thinks quite highly of young Meier, who weighs in at less than 110 pounds despite being fairly tall for a jock. "He's got very, very good hands on a horse," Catalano said, "and he's got ice-water in his veins."

It will take Meier some time to get his business rolling, of course, and even Catalano and Calabrese may be in for a lull. Catalano has no horses racing on either Thursday or Friday, and said a decrease in his number of stalls this year, from 46 down to 32, could cause gaps in his stream of starters this meet.

Fires still going strong at 61

Catalano and Calabrese continued putting 61-year-old jockey Earlie Fires on horses last week, and after seven racing days here, the Catalano-Fires team is the leading trainer-jockey combination at the meet, with 6 wins from 10 starts.

Fires himself continues to laugh at senior citizenship, scoring a riding triple - his second of this young season - on Sunday. Coming into this week's racing, Fires had 7 wins from only 12 mounts, placing him third in the jockey standings. Fires said last week that he intends to retire before the end of this Arlington meeting.

Sebastian County targets Classic

Trainer Don Von Hemel said it was by design that he avoided facing the toughest 3-year-old stakes competition over the winter at Oaklawn with his stakes-class colt Sebastian County.

Third in his 2008 debut, and second to Kodiak Kowboy in his second start back, Sebastian County won the April 12 Northern Spur in his best race so far at 3, and the third-place finisher in the 2007 Arlington-Washington Futurity is scheduled to make his turf debut here May 24 in the Arlington Classic.

The Classic, the first leg of the loosely-linked Mid-America Triple, has been moved up on the calendar this year.

"He's a fresh, sound horse right now, and we hope to have a good summer with him," said Von Hemel, who has given Sebastian County two Polytrack works since he shipped into Arlington.

Also pointing for the Arlington Classic is the Catalano-trained Prime Real Estate, a Keeneland turf allowance winner last month.