05/20/2002 12:00AM

Engel batting a whopping .500

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ALTOONA, Iowa - With only 18 horses in training at Prairie Meadows, Roger Engel isn't likely to win the training title. But handicappers would be well advised to pay close attention to any horse Engel starts.

Through Saturday Engel had sent out 8 winners from 16 starters, putting him just one win behind co-leaders Stanley Roberts and Lynn Chleborad in the standings. Five of Engel's other starters finished in the money. Engel's impressive stats are not a fluke: Last year he saddled 12 winners from just 39 starters - a 30 percent winning average - to finish in a tie for 11th in the standings.

Making his win percentage all the more notable is that the majority of his horses are racing in the highly competitive allowance and upper-level claiming ranks.

Engel, a 37-year-old native of Grand Island, Neb., said that he raced his horses a bit more sparingly at Oaklawn Park this spring than in past years while pointing for this meet.

He credits his father for providing a solid foundation for his training career. "I've been around horses all my life," said Engel, who lives in Oklahoma. "My father was an excellent horseman and he taught us how to do things right. All horses are unique individuals and I train each of them accordingly."

Those expecting Engel's pace to slow down may be in for a surprise. "I have some maidens that I haven't started here who can run, and the horses I've run have come back well."

* Engel is not the only one happy with the way this meet has started. Prairie Meadows track officials are all smiles as the total average daily handle on live racing here is up nearly 30 percent through the first 14 days of the meet compared with a similar time period last year.

Prairie Meadows is averaging $748,039 per day in 2002, compared with $526,345 last year. Ontrack handle this year is virtually unchanged from 2001 at just over $80,000 per day.