11/22/2006 12:00AM

Mettee settles into new role

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Rick Mettee, who will be saddling Ashkal Way in Friday's $400,000 Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park, emerged from his cross-country plane flight to LAX earlier this week and immediately began to shed layers of clothing. First to go was his cozy blue jacket with the Godolphin stable logo.

"Eighty degrees," Mettee said with a shake of his head, having just come from a cold and rainy New York. "I know it's been only two years since I left, but now I remember why I enjoyed living out here so much."

Living, yes. But the work was less than fulfilling, even though it can be argued that Mettee, now 48, was once in the garden spot among a group of promising young horsemen populating the California racing scene in the late 1980's.

Back then, as top assistant to John Gosden, Mettee laid his hands upon such talented horseflesh as Royal Heroine, Bates Motel, Alphabatim, and Star Pastures, as well as Beldale Lustre and Zoffany, both winners of the Citation. Only in his 20's, Mettee was a training star in the making, tabbed to go far on his own some day.

That day, however, came sooner than Mettee expected. At the end of the 1988 season, Gosden returned to his native England, accepting an offer from Robert Sangster that he could hardly refuse. Mettee was faced with either finding a number-two spot in a stable of similar quality or going out on his own. With Gosden's urging, he made the jump.

At first, things went okay, as Mettee enjoyed the support of a few former Gosden clients and took respectable stakes with horses like Annoconnor, Smooth Player, Daring Doone and Fair Judgment, winner of the 1989 Citation.

By his own admission, though, the reserved, soft-spoken Mettee was a flop at personal public relations, preferring to let his work speak for itself. Without vigorous self-promotion, his stable size shrank to single digits. In 2001, his handful of horses made just 14 starts. He finally swallowed his pride and went back to working for other trainers, including a stint with the stable of Patrick Gallagher, one of California's top outfits.

Then came the call from his old boss. With Tom Albertrani forming a public stable, a replacement was needed to take charge of the Godolphin Stable string based in New York, answering directly to chief Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor and Sheikh Mohammed himself. Gosden, who has become one of the Sheikh's closest racing advisors, put forth Mettee's name, and the job was his.

"I'll never be able to thank John enough for the opportunity," said Mettee, who first went to work for Gosden as a groom in 1981, when the Englishman had barely a half-dozen horses. "I can't imagine a better job."

Mettee would seem to be a perfect fit. Headlines have never been his thing, and as Godolphin's man in New York, the less ego the better. Stable finances are handled by Godolphin central. Mettee need only tend to the care and conditioning of the Godolphin string, which this season has included not only Ashkal Way and the sprinter Afrashad, but also Discreet Cat, who will be heavily favored to win the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Saturday.

With Discreet Cat looming like the second coming of Bernardini, it is hard to believe that Mettee could tear himself away from the colt's stall for more than a few hours at a time. Still, there he was in the Hollywood Park stable cafeteria, taking in some familiar sights and smells.

"I've got great help in New York," Mettee said. "So I can afford to leave for a couple of days. Besides, somebody had to be here with this little guy."

He was referring to Ashkal Way, the 4-year-old Irish gelding who developed from a modest British handicapper into one of New York's best middle-distance turf horses of 2006. Ashkal Way won the Bernard Baruch and the Kelso handicaps in his last two starts.

"He's been a pleasant surprise," Mettee said. "I first got to know him last winter in Dubai, when he trained with what could be considered the Godolphin second string. He went from there to Ismail Mohammed, who trains Sheikh Mohammed's endurance horses, and finished a pretty good third in a big handicap there."

Ashkal Way went quietly through his conditions in New York before emerging as a legitimate stakes horse. The Citation - featuring Becrux, Sweet Return and Silent Name - will be his toughest test.

After that, it will be off to Payson Park in Florida for Ashkal Way and the rest of the Mettee branch of the Godolphin operation. The plan is to winter there instead of Dubai with horses who have American campaigns ahead - including Discreet Cat - while trying an occasional race at Gulfstream Park. Mettee was asked if he would miss the bright lights and excitement of Dubai, which has become one of the world's glitziest winter playlands.

"Well, I'll have Palm City, Port St. Lucie, and Jupiter, and that whole part of the Florida coast close by," he noted. "And of course there's the town of Stewart. So I think I'll do just fine."