05/26/2003 12:00AM

First-year trainer's longshots rule turf


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - She claims it's the horses, not her training, but first-year trainer Becky Maker is making her mark in grass races.

Maker, who struck out on her own just last summer, had success in turf races this winter at Fair Grounds, often with long-priced horses, and the trend shows no sign of slackening. The Maker-trained Dancing With Me won an overnight handicap here Saturday and paid $67.20 to win. And on Sunday, General Lee won his maiden in a nine-furlong grass race, paying $21.80 to win. Both horses drew in from the also-eligible list.

Maker also has horses at Churchill Downs, where she nearly scored another turf upset Saturday with third-place finisher Captain Nicholas, a 12-1 shot who missed winning by a nose and a neck. Little matter, since the start before, Captain Nicholas won a Churchill grass race at 16-1.

It's common to hear of "turf trainers," horsemen who seem to excel in grass races, but Maker views the concept skeptically.

"These were turf horses before I got them," she said. "It's just the kind of horses that I'm getting."

Dancing With Me, a 4-year-old Mt. Livermore filly owned by Ted Taylor, seemed an unlikely winner. She had lost four first-level allowance races before breaking through with a narrow win April 27 at Churchill, and Saturday she was racing from post 12 against 11 opponents, many of whom were listed-stakes types. But after tracking a solid early pace, Dancing With Me hooked up with Soccory in a stretch-long duel and prevailed by a neck.

"I've always held that filly in high standing," Maker said. "I think she's dynamite, and I couldn't wait to run her in a stake."

Maker isn't sure where and when Dancing With Me will next race. Keep an eye out - especially at a price.

Bourque switches agents

Thirteen days into the Arlington meet, Curt Bourque leads the jockey standings here, with 17 wins to 14 for the two-time defending champion, Rene Douglas. It's a startling turn of fortune for Bourque, who struggled to secure live mounts all winter at the Fair Grounds meet.

But Bourque wants more. This week, he split with his agent, Kenny Danna, and hired Ronnie Ebanks to book his mounts. Ebanks has handled the book of such jockeys as Shane Sellers, Mark Guidry, and, most recently, Jorge Chavez, and Bourque said he couldn't pass on the chance to work with him.

"It was just a business move," Bourque said Sunday, another two-win day for him here. "Ronnie was available. He's a great agent. Nothing against Kenny - it was hard to tell him - but this was a great opportunity."

Bourque and Ebanks grew up together in Erath, La. Bourque said he meant to call Ebanks as soon as he found out that Ebanks and Chavez had split this spring, but he put it off until two weeks ago.

"Ronnie said he'd commit for the summer and we'd go from there," said Bourque.

In great part, Bourque has trainer Wayne Catalano and owner Frank Calabrese to thank for his hot start. Bourque is riding first call for them, and Catalano already has saddled 12 winners at Arlington.

"I knew I'd do okay, but I didn't know it would go like this," Bourque said.

Big crowd soaks up sun

Arlington exceeded its own expectations with an excellent crowd of 12,175 on Sunday.

"We thought after yesterday we had a chance at 10,000," said Cliff Goodrich, Arlington's president. "Nobody thought 12,000."

Sunday's handle wasn't outstanding, but the atmosphere was. On a sun-drenched afternoon, boisterous fans thronged the apron and outdoor seating, and their cheers swelled as races turned into the homestretch. Arlington, mainly quiet so far this season, became lively and engaging again.

"May, historically, is a pretty light month," Goodrich said. "This was encouraging. It's still going to be tough on the racing front. Until we can get purses up, it's not easy getting the horses."

Indeed, there were only five in the Sunday feature, an allowance prep for the Chicago Breeders' Cup here next month. Summer Mis, one of the best Illinois-bred fillies in years, beat a solid group of open horses by three lengths for her fourth win in six starts at Arlington.

Reno Rumble leads claiming field

The only open allowance here Wednesday is a first-level race that drew a soft field of six. More attractive is the seventh race, a $50,000 grass claimer with a competitive field of nine.

Reno Rumble, who was entered and scratched from an overnight stakes race Monday, will try for his 11th win on Arlington's grass course. Once a stakes horse, the 9-year-old Reno Rumble dropped into high-level claimers here last season and found his level. In for a claiming tag five times last meet, Reno Rumble won twice and placed twice, including a victory in his only start for $50,000.