04/21/2004 11:00PM

Well-stocked Pino barn ready for big meeting

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Last April, trainer Mike Pino was mired in a deep slump. In 3 1/2 months, his horses won just seven races.

In a dramatic reversal of fortune, Pino wound up having the second-best meet in Delaware Park's 76-year history by saddling 99 winners. He finished 2003 with 127 victories and $2.1 million in earnings, by far his most successful year.

Armed with better stock and coming off a good winter at Fair Grounds, where he finished ninth in the standings with 15 wins from 63 starters, Pino figures to be even more dangerous when Delaware launches its 135-day meet Saturday.

Pino, 41, who grew up not far from the track in Wilmington, Del., acknowledges his Delaware stable of about 45 horses is much stronger, thanks to a mixture of some newly acquired horses from Fair Grounds and several of his freshened stars.

"I claimed some horses that we have not even run back yet that I am pretty excited about. They look like they have potential and should be useful," Pino said. "I am starting out with a lot better stock than last year. I have a couple of horses coming off layoffs that I am excited about. Distinct Vision, Smooth Maneuvers, and Ashmore have all been freshened up over the winter just for Delaware."

A 4-year-old gelding claimed for $25,000 at Fair Grounds, Distinct Vision had 6 wins and 3 seconds in 12 starts last season, including 4 wins and 2 seconds in 6 races at Delaware. In his last start, he finished second in the Shecky Green Stakes last November.

Smooth Maneuvers, a 4-year-old filly claimed for $25,000 last August, had three wins and a second in four Delaware starts in 2003. In her final start last year, she won the Grade 3 Anne Arundel Stakes at Laurel Park.

Ashmore, a 4-year-old colt, had a record of 3-2-4 in 11 starts last year, including 3 wins in 4 starts at Delaware.

Pino also thinks highly of a couple of his new claims. He took Strodes Commander, a 4-year-old colt, for $10,000 and watched him romp for $25,000 in his next start. "We gelded him, ran him back, and he won by about six lengths," Pino said. "Hopefully, he stays together because he could be a Claiming Crown type horse."

Pino also claimed Pretty Bonnie, a 3-year-old filly who is unbeaten in two starts, for $30,000. In her most recent win, Pretty Bonnie earned an 83 Beyer Speed Figure.

Despite his excellent season at Delaware, Pino had to settle for second in the trainer standings because Scott Lake set a meet record with 115 winners. Lake will be a major factor again with 40 to 45 horses on the grounds. Other prominent trainers returning include Allen Iwinski, the track's top trainer in 1997 and 2002; five-time leading trainer Tim Ritchey; and Steve Klesaris, one of the top 10 trainers at Aqueduct.

In addition, prominent Maryland trainer Tony Dutrow will have horses stabled at Delaware for the first time since 1994. Dutrow expects to have about 15 horses on the grounds, mostly lightly raced younger runners eligible for maiden or first-level allowance races.

All five of last season's leading jockeys return, led by Ramon Dominguez. The leading rider in victories in North America in 2003, Dominguez plans to ride primarily at Delaware, going to Maryland only on dark days.

The four riders who finished behind Dominguez in the Delaware standings last year - Roberto Alvarado Jr., Anthony Black, Jose Caraballo, and Oliver Castillo - also return. Black, 53, will miss about the first month of the meet while recuperating from multiple injuries sustained in a five-horse spill at Philadelphia Park in February.

Filly sprinters in opening stakes

Feline Story, winner of the Grade 3 Sorority at Monmouth Park last summer, makes her 3-year-old debut in Saturday's opening-day feature, the $75,000 Legal Light Stakes at six furlongs. Trained by Stan Hough, Feline Story has not raced since she finished second by a neck in the Grade 2 Astarita at Belmont Park last October.

The field of nine fillies also includes Spirited Game, who upset the Smart Halo at Pimlico this month; Royal Magician, who shows two bullet works over the track in preparation for her first start this season; and the Nick Zito-trained She's a Mugs, who ran a half-mile in 44.67 seconds before fading in last month's Grade 3, seven-furlong Cicada at Aqueduct.