06/20/2004 11:00PM

Lovato climbs out of rider doldrums


CHICAGO - There is plenty going on at the top of the Arlington Park jockey colony. Rene Douglas, who comes to town in May and has left the last three autumns with a riding title, has finally surged into the lead, but barely. Through Sunday, Douglas had 26 wins, one more than Cruz Contreras, the apprentice rider about to lose his "bug." Tied with Contreras is a resurgent Eddie Razo, who has picked up his pace even while suffering a disappointment Saturday, when he finished fourth of five on odds-on favorite Mayo on the Side in the Grade 3 Chicago Breeders' Cup. Even Chris Emigh, with 23 wins, and streaking Carlos Marquez Jr., with 19, have gotten into the game.

But the real action over the weekend came at the bottom of the standings. On Saturday morning, there was no lower level than the one Frank Lovato occupied. In a month, he had been shut out at Arlington, and this was no way to live. The personable, multi-talented Lovato (he is an accomplished musician; he has helped pioneer the development of an exerciser for jockeys) is 41, and when he rides here he leaves behind a wife and three kids, who live a few miles from Belmont Park. Until Saturday, Lovato was wondering if he ought to be there, too.

"I've been away from home for too long to be losing like that," Lovato said.

Lovato finally got off the duck, winning Saturday's first race with a horse named Color Me Gone. And suddenly, Lovato could barely lose. He rode four more horses Saturday, and three of them won: Boogie Piano in the fifth, Acceptwithpleasure in the seventh, and Cherokee's Disco in the ninth. Sunday, Lovato rode a filly named Sahmkindawonderful to victory in the featured Double Delta Stakes. Sahmkindawonderful, like two of Lovato's winners Saturday, is trained by Becky Maker.

"I didn't think I was riding badly or anything, but after a while, other people start to think that, and you worry about it," Lovato said. "It's the great thing about this business. It can go one way with you, and then all of a sudden it can go the other. I'm smart enough to know that by now, but then you start thinking, when is it going to happen?"

It happened, and there is Lovato's name - not next to Douglas and the others, but with a "5" in the win column.

Statebreds take center stage

It is fitting that Wednesday's featured eighth race is a second-level turf allowance for Illinois-breds. This week at Arlington is all about statebred racing. Saturday is the Prairie State Festival, which features six $75,000 Illinois-bred stakes races, for which the fields were still taking shape Monday. Weights for the handicap races were released late Monday morning, and there are some intriguing questions here. Will Summer Mis's people accept the 128 pounds she was assigned in the Isaac Murphy? Will Mystery Giver go in the Cardinal under 127 pounds?

The question for bettors Wednesday is whether Time to Live is ready for a top effort after close to five months on the shelf. The guess is, "yes."

Time to Live went off form in the middle of the Fair Grounds meet, but without a break from racing in the better part of a year, she had a right to. Her trainer, Leo Gabriel, has been breezing Time to Live since early in the Hawthorne meet. Gabriel does not have many horses, and he tends to make starts count. Time to Live's pattern of published workouts, especially the six furlongs in 1:14.40 she went May 23, hint that Time to Live will not be given a race for fitness.

To win, she has to beat a horse named Noble Wish, who appeared to relish a wet Arlington grass course when she won June 5.