12/31/2001 12:00AM

Trainer title a four-way race at the wire


MIAMI - The long Calder season, which began in May, comes to a close Wednesday with a 12-race program that in all probability will not settle the Tropical-at-Calder training title until the official sign goes up on the afternoon's final race.

Trainers Manny Tortora, Dan Hurtak, Eddie Plesa Jr., and defending champion Bill White all still had a shot at winning the title going into the 52nd and final day of the Tropical at Calder meet.

Hurtak, who won three consecutive Calder training championships from 1994-1996 but has never won a Tropical title, entered five horses on the final day. Plesa, the 1994 Tropical title winner, had four chances on Wednesday's card. White, who has won or shared the last three Tropical titles, had three starters Wednesday. Tortora, also a three-time Tropical winner and the leader going into the final card, had only two starters on closing day.

Tortora's title hopes may hinge on Handsome Smile, who figures to be one of the favorites in Wednesday's $35,000 allowance feature.

Handsome Smile won three straight optional claiming races in the late summer and early spring but has since tailed off a bit, finishing fifth in an overnight handicap and second behind Gallant Frolic in his 2001 finale on Dec. 19. He also picks up seven pounds off his last start under the allowance conditions of Wednesday's main event.

As for the battle for training honors, Tortora knew he was up against it heading into the finale.

"I've only got a couple in on the last day, but there was really nothing I could do about that," said Tortora. "There were a lot of cheaper races on the card and I just didn't have anything that fit those races."

If Handsome Smile is going to help give Tortora another title, he again must defeat Gallant Frolic as well as a couple of classy veterans in Stormy Do and Thrillin Discovery.

Gallant Frolic rallied from off the pace over a speed-favoring course for his fourth consecutive allowance victory Dec. 19 to close out an extremely productive 3-year-old campaign. Gallant Frolic earned more than $100,000 in 2001, while improving with nearly every start in the latter half of the season.

Stormy Do turned 9 on New Year's Day and will be making only his third start in 13 months. But the classy old pro has worked well for owner-trainer Jerry Bozzo in preparation for his return and is dangerous when allowed to relax on the lead, as he figures to do in this spot.

Thrillin Discovery, one of the top handicap performers on the grounds for several seasons, went winless last year in seven starts, but did finish second, beaten a half-length, by local sprint champ Fappie's Notebook in the Smile Sprint Handicap on Oct. 13. Thrillin Discovery's last victory came at the expense of Stormy Do under allowance conditions Aug. 7, 2000.

Plesa's chances to win the Tropical title took a hit Saturday, when Best of the Rest finished fourth as the odds-on favorite in the $100,000 Fred Hooper Jr. Handicap. The good news is the often-injured horse came out of the race in good order and remains on target for the Grade 1 Donn Handicap on Feb. 9.

"He was a little sore in one foot, which is a little unusual for him but not for this racetrack," said Plesa. "But knock on wood, soundness-wise he's 100 percent. Naturally, I was disappointed in the outcome of the Hooper, but he's not a machine. [Jockey] Eibar [Coa] rode him exactly like I wanted him to. Unfortunately, he got caught between horses early and might have been anxious and not as relaxed as I would have liked the first part of the race."

Cornelio Velasquez will win his first Tropical riding championship, pulling away from Manny Aguilar late in the meet. Aguilar, who came into his own in the second half of the year, was easily second in the standings, with Rosemary Homeister Jr., Coa, and Eduardo Nunez fighting it out for the third spot.