03/18/2006 1:00AM

Cronk back where he belongs


OLDSMAR Fla. - When Run for Sam was led into the Tampa Bay Downs winner's circle after winning a race last Tuesday, it was good to see a feisty Sam Cronk standing in his familiar spot by the horse's flank.

Cronk, who has been training horses for more than four decades, has been a fixture at both Tampa Bay Downs and Delaware Park for many years. He was forced to have triple bypass heart surgery recently, no small procedure for a 70-year-old who had been a heavy smoker for years. But Cronk, who could count the number of days he had missed at the barn over the years on one hand, has bounced back quickly. According to his daughter, Jackie Reed, it's not what Cronk can't do but what he isn't allowed to do yet that is the main problem for the workaholic.

"His doctors are allowing him to come out to the barn more and more as the days go by but once he gets here he doesn't just want to stand around, he wants to grab a pitchfork or move a bale of hay and we have to keep an eye on him all the time to make sure he doesn't overdo things," said Reed. "But he's a lot happier than he was when he had to stay home. I've got some nurses that really earned their pay making sure he did the right thing."

Meanwhile, the Cronk outfit keeps clicking along, winning two races this week to give them 10 victories from 73 starters at the meet.

Lezcano opening up in rider standings

Jose Lezcano's five winners last Tuesday put some added distance between him and second-leading rider Terry Houghton. Lezcano has 75 wins to Houghton's 46, and with Houghton serving a suspension that started Friday, the gap should get even wider. Daniel Centeno holds the third spot with 36 wins.

Keep an eye on Purple - at all times

Jockey Juan Umana, who is fourth in the standings, had an interesting time in Friday's finale with Purple, a first-time starter from the Joan Scott barn. Purple, a Royal Academy filly, unseated Umana behind the starting gate, then proceeded to rear up numerous times, almost falling over backwards before the assistant starters calmed her down and loaded her into the gate.

Most horses who are fractious usually have little to offer when a race begins, but not Purple. She broke sharply, stalked the early leader with Umana sitting hard against the controls, then, after moving to the lead on the turn, simply toyed with her field through the stretch, winning with plenty left in the tank. It will be be interesting to watch Purple both behind and in front of the starting gate the next time she starts.