07/20/2005 11:00PM

Nicks stable up, running

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Cool Conductor always was cut out to be a good grass horse, but he had kinks to smooth. Ralph Nicks was stamped as a horse trainer, and after a couple of bumps, he seems to have made it.

Nicks's big horse? Cool Conductor, who runs Saturday in a robust edition of the Arlington Handicap. Cool Conductor beat Grade 1 winners Artie Schiller and Good Reward in the May 21 Dixie Handicap just days after Nicks took over training from his longtime mentor, Bill Mott.

The switch was not entirely sweetness and light, but everyone's living with it. The horse's owner, David Garner, lives in Louisville, where Nicks is based, and the two had become well acquainted during Nicks's 13-year tenure as Mott's Kentucky assistant. When Nicks opened a public stable this year, Garner sent him horses, and eventually decided he wanted all his stock in one barn.

"Anytime a horse like that is moved, there's some disappointment," Nicks said. "We all talked about it when it happened, and it was handled the best professional way it could have been."

Since Mott and Nicks lasted more than a decade, they clearly got along well, and the relationship apparently is intact. "I've backed him all along," Mott said.

But Mott conceded that "once you've spent time working with a horse, you'd like to reap the reward."

And Cool Conductor required work.

"He was a very difficult 2-year-old," Mott said. "Even to get him out of the gate was a problem. Then he went from one extreme to another. First we couldn't get him going, and then we got him to where he'd break and he'd want to run off."

Nicks watched Cool Conductor burn himself out in some races last year - including the Secretariat Stakes, where he opened a five-length lead before tiring - but believes the horse is more relaxed this season.

His last start, a close fourth in the United Nations Handicap, wasn't on a par with the Dixie, but Cool Conductor hadn't raced in six weeks and relaxes better when his races come closer together.

"Nowadays, the way people do it is to take the horses straight to the race without the prep," Nicks said. "He's one of the horses that needs to run in the prep race before the big race."

Nicks, a boyish 38, is the son of trainer Morris Nicks. He rode races when he was 16, and at just 22 took the job with Mott. It was natural to assume he would become a head trainer, but when he left Mott in 2003, it was to work as the agent for jockey Mark Guidry.

"I was just tired and worn out," Nicks said. "I'd been going early-morning hours since way before I was legal occupational age. As an agent, there was good money, but at the end of the day, there just wasn't enough satisfaction. You could win a big race, but what did you do?"

So, late in 2003, Nicks signed on as a private trainer for Team Valor stable, but that road didn't go far. In New York, in early June of 2004, Nicks was suspended 15 days, fined $5,000, and let go by Team Valor after one of his horses was seen being giving a calcium injection the day he was to race.

"It ended up changing my life and making me a public trainer," Nicks said. "Sometimes things happen for a reason."

Nicks has built his barn to 18 horses, hopes to expand it to 40, and so far has won 21 races in 2005. He had a solid meet at Churchill, where the competition runs fierce, and a strong race by Cool Conductor could land Nicks in the Arlington Million.

"I never was really down and wondering where I was going," he said. "I've gotten up for a long time in the morning. If I can get inside the stable gate, I feel like I'm going to be okay."