02/23/2005 12:00AM

Kirby has strength in numbers once again


STICKNEY, Ill. - A railbird could get dizzy watching the Frank Kirby saddle towels buzz around the Hawthorne racetrack during February.

Kirby won the Arlington training title last summer and iced that cake by taking the Hawthorne title last fall, beating out Steve Asmussen both times. Thoughts that Kirby might slow down this year quickly drowned in his sea of morning trainees.

After yet another set of Kirby's horses galloped past the half-mile-pole gap late in training hours Tuesday, three days before the meet opens, Kirby was asked how many he'd worked that morning.

"Oh, probably 15 to 18," said Kirby. "That's about what we've been doing most days."

Kirby has a barn full of horses on the Hawthorne backstretch and many more at Hondo Ranch, the local farm and training center he operates. Hondo has an indoor training arena, perfect for northern Illinois winters, and a mild February has allowed the horses at the track to train steadily. He has two horses entered in Friday's opener, but there are many more to come.

Illinois-bred maidens, maiden claimers, and conditioned allowance horses abound in the Kirby barn, but there have recently been higher quality performers. Bare Necessities was retired after finishing unplaced in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, but Cloudy's Knight, who ended his year with a close second in the Grade 3 River Cities last November at Churchill, returned to the racetrack this week and might be ready in time to start in a stakes race during Keeneland's meet in April.

"He filled out over the break," said Kirby. "He just looks beautiful."

April also could mark the return of Apache Point, a 3-year-old Royal Academy colt who won his only start by five lengths here Dec. 8.

Calabrese employing several trainers

Chicago's perennial leading owner, Frank Calabrese, will start the 2005 season here with horses scattered among several trainers, unlike past seasons, when his operation was concentrated in the hands of one horseman, usually Wayne Catalano.

As they have several times before, Calabrese and Catalano parted company over the winter. Calabrese's horses were shipped from Fair Grounds to south Florida and to Oaklawn, while Catalano remained in New Orleans. Catalano, who has about 30 stalls at Hawthorne, is now operating a public stable, while Calabrese will start horses here with trainers Mike Reavis, Joey Camardo, and Dale Bennett. Wesley Ward, based at the Palm Meadows training center in Florida, has another dozen Calabrese horses there.

"Working for Frank? It's the best job on the backside," said Camardo, making his first stint as a Calabrese trainer. "I'd love to have all his horses. Getting to know the guy a little bit, I kind of like him. He's no different than any other Italian uncle of mine."

Said Camardo, "He wants three trainers, so maybe there's a form of competition."

Reavis, by far the most established of Calabrese's current crop of trainers and a contender for the National Jockey Club training title, has about 18 Calabrese horses right now.

Progress in Mystery Giver recovery

This was supposed to be Mystery Giver's weekend. Saturday in New Orleans, Fair Grounds hosts the $125,000 Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap, a race Mystery Giver has won three years in a row. Last season, he followed up with a win in the Grade 2 Mervin Muniz.

Not this time. Right now, Mystery Giver is spending his days in a pasture at a Florida farm, slowly recovering from a badly injured hind-leg suspensory ligament, damaged during the running of the Arlington Million last August. The fear was that Mystery Giver's racing days were done, but he is coming around.

"Actually, he's doing pretty well," said trainer Chris Block, whose family owns Mystery Giver. "My dad's down there in Ocala, and his injury looks better. We're going to ultrasound him and X-ray him again in a week and see how we're doing."

If the healing continues, Mystery Giver will begin swimming in a so-called aquasizer, his first step toward a potential comeback.

"What we're looking at if all went well is a 2006 campaign," said Block. "Better to err on the side of caution than to try and push to get him back in the fall."

Top local riders here for opener

Many of the usual suspects in the Chicago jockey colony are here for the season opener, including Chris Emigh, the leading rider here last fall

Returning to Chicago is Timothy Thornton, who started his career two summers ago at Arlington. Thornton has been set back by recurring wrist problems, but has ridden with some success this winter at Aqueduct, where he has 13 wins since Jan. 1. Michelle Barsotti will handle Thornton's business.