12/09/2003 1:00AM

Salvation under the shed row

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Louis Hodges Jr.
Zarb's Music winning the Gentilly Handicap at Fair Grounds last March and with trainer Diana Soileau and her father, Eddie Johnson.

NEW ORLEANS - Even in late morning the northeast corner of Barn 16 at Fair Grounds is dark. At 3:30 a.m. it is much darker, but that is when 80-year-old Eddie Johnson arrives to begin the day's work. An hour and a half later, Diana Soileau, his daughter, shows up. There is Robert Jason, a longtime exercise rider, and nine racehorses, each behind white stall webbings marked with two stars and a red "S".

Absent is Dwayne Soileau. These were the horses he trained, and this was his shed row until last spring, when he died at age 53 of a heart attack after a two-month illness. Diana Soileau, his wife of 32 years, came home from afternoon feeding at Lone Star Park in early April and found him on the couch. Everything changed for her that day. But racetrack work doesn't halt. Someone still has to feed and groom and oversee daily training, no matter what has happened.

"I came back to Louisiana to bury him, and then I had to go right back to Lone Star and take care of the horses," Mrs. Soileau said. "I don't know if I've had time to grieve yet. I guess I've grieved for myself. But in some ways, I'm still waiting for him to call or walk through the door."

Just weeks before he died, Mr. Soileau (swa-LOW) had the biggest victory of his training career when Zarb's Music walked onto a turf course for the first time and won the $100,000 Gentilly Handicap by a length.

"He won on March 22, after Dwayne had first had trouble with his heart, and in the winner's circle I was worried," Mrs. Soileau said. "He said, 'My heart's pumping, but it's pumping in a good way.' "

Cedric LaFleur and Sammy Russo own eight of the nine horses in the Soileau stable, and since Mrs. Soileau took over, seven have won. The lone exception is the best of them, Zarb's Music, who tries again Saturday in the $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Turf, part of a $1 million day at Fair Grounds for Louisiana-breds. Mr. Sulu and Coach Rags are the Turf favorites, but Zarb's Music, a slender chestnut 3-year-old, has won three races and more than $125,000 this season.

"I think I've done exactly what Dwayne would have done with him - except win," said Mrs. Soileau.

And then she laughed - a clear, sincere laugh. Mrs. Soileau, 55, might have found laughter difficult months ago, but as she has learned to work without her husband, she has learned to live without him.

"The horses have been my salvation since Dwayne died," she said. "They've kept my sanity."

Mrs. Soileau gets a strong dose of sanity from her father, who is going strong as he starts on his ninth decade. Johnson officially is licensed as Mrs. Soileau's assistant trainer, but he doubles as a groom for Zarb's Music.

"I'm taking care of that little chestnut colt and one other horse," Johnson said.

Johnson has been coming to Fair Grounds since 1939, when oil lamps lit the barns, and he caught on at 16 as a hot-walker and groom, then an exercise rider, eventually becoming a jockey. A short-lived riding career included a meet in Cuba, in 1940, but Johnson was called to fight in World War II.

"I came back from the war and I was finished," he said. "I can always pick out the bad riders now, because I was as bad as any of them."

Then came years as a horse trainer, mainly of the struggling claiming type. "My theory is that anybody can train a sound horse," he said. "It just takes some common sense. It's when you get a horse with some problems, and you have to get up there under him, that you have to know something. I believe in being a hands-on trainer."

That is the term Mrs. Soileau uses to describe the operation she ran alongside her husband for more than 30 years. The Soileaus were close. They shared responsibility at the barn and at home, where they raised two daughters. Mr. Soileau was the son of J.Y. Soileau, a well-known Louisiana horseman.

"Dwayne and I always liked to do the work ourselves," Mrs. Soileau said. "I learned so much from him and from my father. You always doubt yourself, though. It's been a tough row, but you just try to take the initiative."

Mrs. Soileau seems at ease in the barn. Training hours over, she nuzzles Zarb's Music and scratches his ears. She has her father's fervor for racehorses, which still brings him to the stables in the deepest part of the night.

The little chestnut colt, who was claimed for just $15,000 in his career debut on Sept. 12, 2002, is a pet around the barn, "a plow horse," Mrs. Soileau calls him. "But once you get him out on the racetrack, he's all business."

The hard, fast track at Louisiana Downs disagreed with Zarb's Music over the summer, Mrs. Soileau believes, and his only turf race there went all wrong. He is a longshot in the Champions Day Turf, but was 18-1 in the Gentilly, and picks up his head when he returns to training over this racetrack.

"You always imagine your horse winning, even if it's just a claimer," Mrs. Soileau said. "I just hope he runs his race."

Long before dawn, as Barn 16 comes to life, those who remain are still hoping.