05/11/2004 11:00PM

A changing of the guard that lacks acrimony

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - They were born two months apart in 1956, Pat Cuccurullo in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, Wayne Catalano in New Orleans's Ninth Ward, spots that stamp their sons with strong, similar accents. Even the cadence of their surnames swirls together: Cuccurullo, Catalano.

A year ago, Cuccurullo, down to a handful of horses, struggled to keep his head above water. Catalano was sitting pretty, with a full barn for the owner Frank Calabrese, about to start winning his third Arlington training title in four seasons.

Another Arlington meet begins Friday, and Cuccurullo has taken up residence in Catalano's old haunt, Arlington's Barn 14. He is the one piloting Calabrese's stable.

Catalano has come back too, but with half the stock and a new owner, Turf Express Inc.

Something soured between Catalano and Calabrese over the winter. The owner expects winners, and Catalano provided them, but winning does not always soothe Calabrese. Catalano went to Gulfstream Park with a string of horses. Calabrese claims he fired Catalano. Catalano diplomatically hints otherwise.

Catalano and Cuccurullo could be fiery-eyed rivals. It's not working out that way. A tone of amiability is all that has crept into their relationship.

"I have nothing bad to say about him," Catalano said of Cuccurullo. "I recommended him when nobody said he could make it."

"A year ago at this time, Frank gave me the first horse," Cuccurullo said. Catalano's Arlington barn was overflowing with Calabrese's stock. The operation needed a place to grow. "I hoped I'd have 10 to 12. I didn't envision this happening. I didn't see Frank and Wayne having a falling-out. At the time, I was in trouble. I was starting to think about other options. I never got down to specifics, but I might have been a month away from being in big trouble."

In the late 1990's, Cuccurullo had settled into a nice spot training for the owner Robert Lothenbach, but as Lothenbach scaled back, Cuccurullo's position eroded. It had happened before. Cuccurullo had a good run in the early years of Canterbury Park, but purses there never changed your life. For a while, he switched to being a jockey agent. In 1994, he started a produce business in Florida.

At Arlington, Cuccurullo eased into Calabrese's operation, and his presence increased as the year wore on. Catalano shepherded him into the fold. It was an unlikely scene: Two established trainers, working on the same team.

"It was the first time I'd ever spent that much time with one of my peers," Cuccurullo said. "Everyone out there is your competition. I could stand out there and pick his brain."

So began an unexpected education. Cuccurullo always had been more a railbird trainer, a sharp guy who knew the ins and outs of claiming and management. Catalano, once a successful jockey, came from a different place. Catalano still regularly breezes his own horses, taking special spins on the ones who don't feel quite right to his exercise riders.

"I learned a lot from Wayne," said Cuccurullo. "He had a different perspective in that he used to ride. When we'd stand at the rail together watching horses train, he'd point things out: 'Look at that horse jog. Look at the way the rider drops his head.' "

Cuccurullo has borrowed from Catalano a light touch: In Catalano's book, less usually gets you more with claiming horses. "Jogging, jogging, jogging," Cuccurullo said.

After the winter breakup, Cuccurullo started moving the chessmen, and he earned the training title this spring at Hawthorne, where Calabrese's horses won at more than a 30-percent clip from start to finish.

"I love him. I think he's a good trainer," said Calabrese, whose successful printing business got him into this sport. "Pat's easier for me to talk to than Wayne. I told everybody that I would make Pat leading trainer."

That's Calabrese, who often treats the racetrack - front side and back - as his stage. To pick Cuccurullo up from the bottom and take him to the top, that would be one more victory. Like or loathe Calabrese's in-your-face presence, he made his point: His operation could win without Catalano.

Landing in West Virginia, Catalano proved the reverse, never missing a beat after losing Calabrese, his only client. He is the leading percentage trainer at Mountaineer Park, where Catalano has gone an amazing 19 for 43.

"I spent a couple months getting this program in order, and we're there," Catalano said. "I know I know how to train a horse. I know what to do with them. It's the same as I've always done. This is my 30th year. It's second nature now."

Catalano seems to have reached a strike rate verging on magic, and he probably will win more often this summer at Arlington than a normal outfit. But with only 20 or 25 horses, another training title is out.

An Arlington title - pure fantasy a year ago - lies within Cuccurullo's reach. "The limit for stalls at Arlington is 46, and we have it," he said.

For all the changes, Cuccurullo essentially remains the same. He has stared hard at this job, and does not appear to have done much blinking.

"I'm content, but I think a real trainer is never satisfied," he said. "We're done here at Hawthorne, we start again Friday at Arlington. In two weeks, it won't matter. Everybody forgets what you did."