06/02/2003 12:00AM

A sudden end and a promising start

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - What separates horse racing from other kinds of gaming are its agrarian rhythms, the thud of real life drumming beneath the game.

Take Sunday at Arlington, where one life ended and another began beneath a high blue spring sky. Wild About U was scarcely younger than a kid named Timothy Thornton when the day began; when it ended, Wild About U had died, and Thornton had begun a voyage he had dreamed about for a lifetime.

Wild About U was born in 1992, and if his racing career never took flight into the highest regions, he was a bulwark of the sport for close to a decade. With a strong set of healthy wheels beneath him, Wild About U made the starting gate 102 times, and to celebrate his 100th race seven weeks ago at Hawthorne, he won by a neck.

His legs never gave out, but something else did Sunday. A quarter-mile into the second race here, as he galloped slowly along at the back of the pack - his trademark style - Wild About U jolted forward and died. The cause is unknown, but the state veterinarian Steven Seabaugh said Wild About U either had a heart attack or a catastrophic hemorrhaging episode. Whatever an autopsy finds, the horse was dead when Seabaugh reached him.

"He was a neat old horse," said Roy Houghton, who trained Wild About U going into Sunday's $10,000 claiming race. So reliable was Wild About U that he was claimed Sunday - by trainer Charlie Bettis - for the third straight time. "We claimed him five different times," said Houghton, who himself has battled heart problems. "He had good legs, sound, and he was a real smart horse."

As Wild About U was going down, Timothy Thornton sat in the jockeys' room for the first time, getting ready. In the fifth race, he was to ride a 50-1 shot in a low-level claimer - but he was riding. Just 16, Thornton and his father, Mark, came to Chicago this spring from Utopia, Texas.

"There's not even a red light in Utopia," said the older Thornton, who works as a blacksmith and occasional exercise rider. Father and son had ridden bulls and horses in Louisiana and Texas. Now, young Timothy was ready to start riding in horse races.

Both Thorntons are quietly intense and exceedingly polite. Mark Thornton seems always to be vaguely smiling. Timothy's focused expression rarely changes.

"Just from what I can see right now is that he's got great potential," said trainer Wayne Catalano. Catalano, once a successful jockey, still rides his own horses each morning, and Thornton has been exercising stock for him. "He's got a great feel for the horses. They run for him."

The gate sprang for the fourth race, and Pelicano, Thornton's mount, was slow to get moving. Finally, racing near the back of a 13-horse field, he started running a bit in the stretch as Thornton steered between tiring horses, and finished seventh.

"This was my first race of any kind," Thornton said afterward. "It was different. There were a lot more horses out there."

Thornton's parents waited beside the winner's circle for him to return. Asked how long he'd waited for the moment, Mark Thornton said, "Sixteen years."

Cilio barn going strong

It was an exhausting spell for the trainer Gene Cilio's people last week at Arlington with all the parading to the winner's circle. Cilio-trained horses made five trips there between Wednesday and Sunday, with Out of My Way capping off the streak in Sunday's featured overnight handicap.

"Gene's been training here for so long, he knows exactly how to get them ready over this track," one of Cilio's assistants, Andy Hansen, said after Out of My Way's win. Cilio was in California for his daughter's wedding. "From late May to early June, he's got them at their peak."

Cilio won the last two races here Friday and nearly duplicated the feat Saturday, but Gracility came up just short in the nightcap, another overnight handicap. There was no stopping Out of My Way, who broke from the rail and dueled inside on a fast pace, but refused to let the longshot Silver Bid pass him and won by a neck, running seven furlongs in a snappy 1:22.57.

"When you space his races right, he'll run his eyeballs out for you," Hansen said.

The next obvious spot for Out of My Way is the White Oak Handicap here June 21.

Padlock worth shot in feature

Before this year, Arlington was loathe to let a race go with less than six entries, but a chronic horse shortage has shifted that policy. Wednesday's feature drew five horses, the third five-horse field at the meet.

For fourth-level allowance horses or $80,000 claimers, the seven-furlong race drew a field difficult to separate. Did He Biteyou is the likely favorite, but he makes his third start in less than a month. He has had an exceptionally productive campaign, with four wins and a second-place finish in five starts.

Castlewood looked good winning a $50,000 claiming race in his last start, but got away with an easy lead and now turns back from one mile to seven furlongs, a more demanding race for him. Storm Commander should make the early lead but has lost his last seven starts, and Lively Minister may not get the fast early pace he needs to set up his late kick.

That leaves Padlock, who showed little facing tougher horses here in his last start, but ran decently against the likes of crack sprinter Beau's Town earlier this year at Oaklawn Park.