02/25/2004 12:00AM

Roller-coaster career takes an upswing


STICKNEY, Ill. - In a 30-year racing career that dates to his teenage years in New York, Pat Cuccurullo has pretty much seen it all.

"I've seen a lot of guys come and go," he said.

Including himself.

Cuccurullo, 46, has come upon his latest reincarnation in racing, this time as the private trainer for Frank Calabrese, the deep-pocketed and sometimes volatile owner whose stable has dominated Chicago racing in recent years. Cuccurullo has inherited the reins of the Calabrese powerhouse from Wayne Catalano, who earlier this month split with Calabrese to begin training for Turf Express Inc. Understandably, as the 47-day National Jockey Club-at-Hawthorne meet begins Friday, Cuccurullo is eager to begin winning races in bunches for Calabrese, just as Catalano did with regularity in recent seasons.

"I'm just very grateful to have the opportunity," Cuccurullo said early Wednesday in his Barn 7 office on the Hawthorne backstretch.

Perhaps this opportunity will be a charmed one. This is the third time that Cuccurullo has had a large stable dominated by one client. He worked primarily for Stephen Herold from 1989 to 1992 and for Robert Lothenbach from 1995 until last year.

Cuccurullo, who grew up in Brooklyn, started out as a stablehand for several top trainers in New York, including Hall of Famers Lucien Laurin and Woody Stephens. He won his first race as a trainer at Monmouth Park in 1977 but was out of the business within a couple of years. He re-entered the sport in 1985 and quickly became a dominant force at Canterbury Park, winning training titles three straight years in the late 1980's.

After working for several years for Herold, he quit training again to work as a jockey agent. He then hooked up with Lothenbach, a Minneapolis businessman, and they experienced success together, but as Lothenbach's interest waned in the last couple of years, Cuccurullo once again found himself on the verge of bottoming out. He was down to a handful of horses, and things were not going very well.

"Frank said to me last summer at Arlington, 'You can't be making much money right now,' " recalled Cuccurullo. "I said, 'You're right.' So Frank gave me a couple of horses to train. After a while, he and Wayne had so many horses that they ran out of stalls, and two horses became 15."

So when racing moved from Arlington to Hawthorne last fall, Cuccurullo's career finally had regained some badly needed momentum. Clearly, he seized the moment, winning with 23 of 79 starters, good for second place in the Hawthorne trainer standings behind Mike Reavis. As Hawthorne wound down, and Catalano took the better Calabrese horses to Gulfstream Park for the winter, Cuccurullo stayed behind in Chicago to prepare for the resumption of racing following the traditional two-month break.

Then came the call from Calabrese, telling Cuccurullo that he was going to be getting a lot more horses. Eleven horses arrived from Florida on Feb. 18, and now Cuccurullo has about 30 at Hawthorne, with more to come.

So instead of being on his way out again, Cuccurullo was on his way back up. Again.

"I know that people have compared Frank to George Steinbrenner, but I think that's great because he loves to win," he said.

Calabrese, a Chicago printing tycoon, is accustomed to winning. Last year, for the first time that anyone in Chicago racing can remember, Calabrese swept the owner titles at the three major Chicago meets: NJC-at-Hawthorne (formerly the Sportsman's meet), Arlington, and Hawthorne.

Cuccurullo is fully aware of what he needs to do to keep Calabrese satisfied.

"The numbers are there for us to do some good," said Cuccurullo. "The big test will probably come down the road at Arlington, when some of the bigger outfits come to town. In the meantime, we're going to try to get a good start on the year right here at Hawthorne."