05/12/2006 12:00AM

Durso's top assistant takes over the barn

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - The orange-and-black sign outside Barn 20 at Monmouth Park still reads "R.J. Durso Public Trainer."

But inside a profound change has taken place.

In a move planned for several years, Bob Durso has turned the training over to his longtime lieutenant Luis Carvajal Jr.

Durso, and his ever-present cigar, have been fixtures at Monmouth for over 40 years. He has had a number of good horses along the way, with Frisk Me Now - winner of the Hutcheson Stakes, the Suburban Handicap, and the Iselin Handicap - the most prominent.

Durso, 67, talked in recent years about cutting back and turning the string over to Carvajal.

But giving up the sport he loved was not an easy decision, and Durso procrastinated until recent triple bypass heart surgery in April forced the issue.

While Durso recuperates in Florida, Carvajal runs the stable and his name appears in the program.

"I talk to him every day and he always tells me he's feeling better," Carvajal said. "He will still be involved and one or two will run in his name, but for the rest, I am the trainer."

Carvajal, 33, has been with Durso for nine years.

"They don't come any better than Luis," Durso said. "I trust him completely, and the owners do, too. He's an intelligent horseman, and I hope he gets off to a quick start."

The timing worked out well for all involved. Carvajal was not going to wait forever on Durso. Carvajal hedged his bet with a second career as a pilot. He had a job offer to remain in Florida at a flight-instruction school, a move that could have put him on the path to future employment as an airline pilot.

"I was ready to do that," Carvajal said. "I talked to Bobby and a lot of the owners and they said they would miss me. It goes to show, you can't make plans because you never know. The next thing you know, Bobby started feeling bad."

Carvajal took over the string of 13 horses and hopes to supplement the barn through the claim box.

"I've been looking forward to this job for a long time," Carvajal said. "I'm going to try my best. I'm going to give 100 percent to the owners who put their trust in me."

Carvajal is from a racing family. His father was a leading jockey in Chile. Carvajal came to the U.S. in 1988 and worked for trainer Angel Penna Jr. before joining Durso.

McCauley returns to Monmouth

"Hollywood" Herb McCauley is back at Monmouth this summer, taking over the book of veteran journeyman Eddie King Jr.

McCauley replaces Danny Nied, who now has Stewart Elliott.

It's a homecoming for one of the track's leading riders. McCauley was, at one time, the all-time leader at The Meadowlands Racetrack. He rode a total of 3,049 winners in his career which ended in a spill in the summer of 1998.

McCauley longed for a comeback but five operations on his left leg made that a futile quest.

He became an agent last year, handling the business for apprentice Kyle Kaenel in New York.

For McCauley, Monmouth is still home, sweet home.

"It's good to be back around all the owners and trainers," McCauley said. "I've known everybody since I started off here in 1975."

In other Monmouth agent-jockey switches, Joe Bravo parted company with longtime agent Danny Mellul. Joe Rosen now handles Bravo, and Mellul has Jorge Chavez, who last rode full-time at Monmouth in 1989.

Slam Bammy's speed on display

Slam Bammy has flashed abundant early speed in his 12-race career, so trainer Joe Orseno figures the five-furlong Decathlon Stakes on Sunday should be a good spot for the 5-year-old's season debut.

"I freshened him up from The Meadowlands," Orseno said. "I didn't bring him back at Palm Meadows until after January. I needed to get miles into him. He's doing well and he's coming back great."

Terrific Challenge has the rail and should wind up in prime stalking position. He lost by a neck in each of his last two races, at Woodbine.

The $60,000 Decathlon was slated for opening day on Saturday but was held over a day when only four horses initially entered. The race wound up with seven runners.