11/24/2003 12:00AM

Trainer Gene Cilio dead at 74

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Gene Cilio, the prominent Illinois horseman, died Saturday night, about three months after he was found to have cancer. He was 74.

Cilio was a trainer for more than 50 years, saddling his first winners in the mid-1950's, but it was in the last decade that his operation truly blossomed. With his personal charm and strong racing connections, his stable housed some of the best Illinois-bred horses in training, as well as high-end stock for Richard Duchossois and James Tafel, two of the best-known owners in Illinois. For Tafel, Cilio trained Lakenheath, a multiple graded stakes winner.

Cilio, born in Chicago in 1929, was the son of another horseman, Angelo Cilio, and split his time between Chicago and New Orleans. He was close to Mervin Muniz, the longtime director of racing at Fair Grounds, who died just before Cilio was found to have cancer.

But Cilio did his best work in Illinois. He especially relished winning races at Arlington, a track he revered. Last summer, the dapper Cilio was overheard chastising another trainer for wearing shorts into Arlington's paddock.

Cilio was a prime player in Illinois-bred stakes races, often with horses bred and owned by Crown's Way Farm, which he owned and operated with his brother, Ron DiCicilia.

For now, Cilio's stock is running in the name of his two main assistants, Andy Hansen at Hawthorne and Greg Geier at Fair Grounds.

A wake for Cilio was scheduled for Monday evening at Salerno's Funeral Home in Roselle, Ill., with a funeral on Tuesday.