Speedy Md. 3-Year-Old Faces Derby Test in Gotham
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Trainer Michael Trombetta stood in the entrance of his backstretch barn at Laurel Park as a beautiful Monday morning unfolded before him. A hotwalker quietly paced her laps inside the shed row, loosely holding the reins of Sweetnorthernsaint, who trailed behind with a lazy shuffle after the morning's work.
The idyllic, mellow scene doesn't betray it, but the horse is bottled lightning, maybe the fastest in Maryland, and as every horseman knows, there is no better time to have a real runner than in the springtime of its 3-year-old season.
"Generally, you get this vision of this caliber of racehorse, you see their head bowed, real strong, nostrils flaring -- this guy doesn't have any of that," Trombetta said. "He just goes and does what he has to do."
What Sweetnorthernsaint has to do is keep running like he has been when the gate opens Saturday in the Grade III $200,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in Ozone Park, N.Y. The race has attracted several of the most promising 3-year-olds in the country and will help Trombetta determine whether he is in charge of a one-dimensional sprinter that looks great running away from slower horses or an animal that rises to adversity and can carry his speed beyond a mile in the heat of battle.
In 20 years of training horses, Trombetta has never had a 3-year-old good enough to give rise to that question. The answer could mean the difference between saddling Sweetnorthernsaint in the Kentucky Derby and watching America's greatest horse race on a monitor in the Laurel clubhouse.
"The bad thing about this is time goes by quick," said Trombetta, 39. "When you do what you like, times just flies."
If Sweetnorthernsaint proves good enough to get to Churchill Downs, much will be made of the second race of his career, in which Trombetta risked losing a horse with the potential to run for millions of dollars in a maiden claiming event he could have been bought out of for $40,000.
The story starts with a miserable debut at Colonial Downs in Virginia last August when, as Trombetta put it, Sweetnorthernsaint "had his mind on chasing the young ladies."
At the time, owners Ted Theos of Kingsville, Md., and Joseph Balsamo of Baltimore had Sweetnorthernsaint with Leo Azpurua Sr., a trainer who handled their stable for 13 years.
The young horse came apart before the start of the mile turf race, fell 31 lengths behind and finished far back in 12th place.
"I think the body was there, but the mind was not there," said Theos, 58, who retired early after making money with a string of franchise restaurants. "I don't want to use the word 'crazy,' but he was a nut.
"Leo said we had to do something about this, so we decided to send him up to Mike, and we had him gelded."