05/02/2008 12:00AM

Happy ending to long career


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - An old claiming horse named Gravano won the first race on April 17 at Hawthorne. In fact, he couldn't lose, according to the bettors, who made Gravano a crushing 1-2 favorite to beat five rivals in a $4,000 claimer. Gravano delivered, won by six: "Shown whip," reads the official chart comment for his performance.

Afterward, Doug Matthews, who has owned and trained Gravano since summer 2004, showed the horse the door.

"One hundred and three starts," Matthews said. "I wanted him to go out a winner."

Yes, a happy ending on the southwest side of Chicago. Gravano, 10, an Indiana-bred son of Pioneering, avoided any of the darker fates that sometimes await an old racehorse who can't go on. Matthews made sure of that.

Matthews has trained a small string in Chicago and occasionally elsewhere for a number of years. He worked as an assistant during the glory days of trainer Noel Hickey, when Hickey was winning a great number of the races run each summer at Arlington Park. He has not trained any major stakes winners. He won 15 races in 2007, for stable earnings of a little less than $250,000. And apparently, this is at least a little more than merely business for Matthews.

Gravano won on a Thursday, and before the weekend was out, he had taken up residence at a Forest Preserve stable north of Chicago. He will serve as a trail horse there.

"He's got a stall, he's got his own groom, he's got a couple paddock buddies," Matthews said. "He won on Thursday, and I took him out there Saturday before I changed my mind."

Gravano never was any kind of star. Matthews claimed the horse for $7,500, and the first race he won thereafter was for a $4,000 claiming price. But Gravano got better than that, and made pretty good money in the starter-allowance ranks for the better part of three years. But the second half of his 9-year-old season, Gravano started sliding. Matthews got him good enough to win one more time and pulled the plug.

"He did good for me, so I figured I'd try to do right by him," he said. "I thought it couldn't really go anywhere but downhill from there."

Often, things really go downhill after a horse leaves the track. Not this time.

Catalano barn shrinks this year

If Wayne Catalano is going to win his fourth straight training title here, he will do so with fewer horses than in recent years.

Catalano typically is allotted 46 stalls for the Arlington meet, an entire barn, but this year, Catlano-trained horses will occupy only 32 of those stalls. The others belong to trainer Rick Slomkowski, but the two operations are closely related.

Slomkowski handles horses owned by Catalano's main client, Frank Calabrese, over the winter at Tampa Bay Downs, and he and Catalano have more than a passing acquaintance.

"He was an assistant to me," Catalano said, "and I'm married to his sister for 30 years."

Slomkowski, who was struck by a car and badly injured about 10 months ago, has won nine races so far this year, and he won 14 in 2007. He figures to be part of the heavy claiming action involving Calabrese here in the summer.

Catalano, who also has five stalls at Churchill Downs, is off to an awesome start this year. Through Thursday, he had won with 39 of his 100 starters so far in 2008.

Cloudy's Knight nears return

Canadian Sovereign Award winner Cloudy's Knight is making progress toward his 2008 debut, trainer Frank Kirby said this week. Cloudy's Knight hasn't raced since he captured the Grade 1 Canadian International last October, but has posted two official workouts - one on grass - and has trained well on the way to this comeback, Kirby said.

"He's doing wonderful, right on track," Kirby said. "I'd like to get a race in him before the July 4 Stars and Stripes. I'd like to run at Arlington if they could get something for him."

Gentleman Chester tops allowance

Gentleman Chester looks like a standout in the featured ninth race here Sunday, a second-level Illinois-bred allowance race carded for 1 1/16 miles on turf.

Based at Churchill Downs with trainer Ralph Nicks, Gentleman Chester was one of seven horses entered in the race, and though he makes his first start since last September, Gentleman Chester looks best. Only 1 of his 7 starts came in an Illinois-bred race, and that was a sharp victory here last summer in the Springfield Stakes. Gentleman Chester finished second to the nice 3-year-old turf horse Voy Por Uno Mas in his 2007 finale and shows a strong work pattern for his comeback.

"He's been training very well," Nicks said. "The time off has done him well."

If he runs well Sunday, Gentleman Chester could come back next month in the Black Tie Affair, an Illinois-bred turf stakes, Nicks said.

Six-furlong Polytrack record

The fast Polytrack seen during morning works here recently certainly carried over to the meet's first race Friday afternoon. A Tom Amoss-trained horse named Nereus won the opener, a second-level allowance race, by a nose and in doing so ran the fastest six furlongs, 1:08.78, of the Polytrack era.

* Jose Velez Jr. usually moves his tack from Florida to New Jersey for the summer, but this year he has eschewed Monmouth Park and come to Arlington.