05/06/2003 11:00PM

The King of Arlington is back


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - On Tuesday, Rene Douglas drove his cherry red Porsche through the Arlington Park gates for the first time this year. He worked a Mr. Prospector colt for Godolphin Racing. He said hello to some gallop boys and trainers. He beamed all morning.

It was good to be home.

Even though Douglas's permanent residence is in Miami, his heart belongs to Chicago. Last season, Douglas had the most dominant Arlington meet in recent history. He rode 231 winners from 660 mounts to take the riding title by 82 wins, his mounts earned more than $5.1 million, and Douglas won seven of the first eight graded stakes at the meet.

Douglas's success at Arlington was in stark contrast to the rest of his year. Away from Arlington, Douglas had only 64 winners from 548 mounts, for earnings of about $2.6 million.

Riding sparingly in Florida and Kentucky this year, Douglas has been a 13 percent winner - but with Arlington opening Friday, that's about to change.

"This is home for me," Douglas said. "This racetrack is kind of different for me than the other ones. Last year, it was like I couldn't do anything wrong here."

Douglas, a 36-year-old from Panama, won a riding title at Calder in 1993 and the Belmont Stakes in 1996, then tried the tough Southern California circuit. He held his own for a couple years, but when his business foundered, Douglas packed up and left.

"I don't regret leaving," Douglas said. "I'm not a sore loser, but I like to win races. There are so many ups and downs and short fields there."

A capable rider with a reputation as a grass specialist, Douglas wandered into a kind of limbo after departing California. There still was business in Florida - more at workmanlike Calder than glamorous Gulfstream - but Douglas was treading water.

Days before the 2001 Arlington meet, Douglas came to Chicago, and in a month he shot to the top of the jockey standings, easily winning the riding title. The fit was perfect, and last year's performance put an exclamation mark on his position here.

"I don't care if you bring in a [Jerry] Bailey or a [Jose] Santos, I'd take Rene on a comparable horse at Arlington," said trainer Chris Block. "He comes into the paddock here just bubbling with confidence."

Wayne Catalano, Arlington's leading trainer and a former jockey, said he believes that some jockeys ride better at certain tracks and that Douglas is one of them. Douglas has gotten the opportunities at Arlington, but his skills have meshed with many other circumstances, Catalano said. Catalano believes that Douglas anticipates the moves of his Chicago competitors and that he looks especially comfortable with Arlington's wide, sweeping turns.

"He rides a good race, and he rides a great grass race," Catalano said. "He'll stay down in the trenches, wait for the right opportunity, and he won't panic. He's got patience, and he knows. He knows how to reserve the horse until he needs it. He gets a horse into a spot before it goes away."

Douglas consistently gets horses who have the acceleration required to hit the holes, and for that he can thank Dennis Cooper, his agent.

Before Douglas, Cooper ruled this meet with Mark Guidry. And with strong connections throughout the Midwest, Cooper consistently puts Douglas on the best horses in the best races. Having made the top, Cooper and Douglas command the best California and New York stakes shippers looking to pick up a local rider.

A huge plug of tobacco wedged seemingly permanently into his right cheek, Cooper gets to the racetrack each morning at 4 o'clock. He makes rounds of the early arrivals on the Arlington backstretch, then starts calling his Kentucky people. By entry time, with the hot rider in Chicago, he inevitably has lined up a full plate.

Cooper and Douglas both are proud and competitive. When Douglas's business took off in 2001 and he first gained attention here, he said Cooper had asked him to come to Chicago. Cooper contended it was the other way around.

"Sometimes, we fight like little brothers," said Douglas, "but he's a great agent."

At first, Douglas rankled some owners and horsemen with pointed comments about the horses he'd ridden. "Rene, he'll tell it like it is," Cooper said. "He's not going to pull any punches with them. People are used to that now."

Douglas also seems to have kept resentment to a minimum in the tight community of race riders.

"He doesn't seem to have a big head, at least not around me," said Chris Emigh, a year-round Chicago regular. "He's getting to ride the best horses, but he's made the most of it."

Douglas has three children, the youngest of them 3, and his family will join him in Chicago this summer. He says he wants to "stay safe and happy," but coming off last season the public will expect much more.

"How could I do as good as last year?" Douglas asked. "That was something you don't see that often."

Yes, but until two years ago, Douglas hadn't seen Arlington.