Md. Trainer Dreams Of a 'Sweet' Derby

Kentucky Derby hopeful Sweetnorthernsaint, a Maryland-based horse, has drawn a slew of media attention since winning the Illinois Derby.
Kentucky Derby hopeful Sweetnorthernsaint, a Maryland-based horse, has drawn a slew of media attention since winning the Illinois Derby. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Rudy Trombetta looked at the line of television cameras pointed at his son, Michael, and the gaggle of reporters surrounding him with microphones, tape recorders and notebooks, and didn't sound too impressed.

"I remember when this happened every other Saturday," said Trombetta, 72, shaking his cane at the busy crowd outside Barn 33 yesterday at Laurel Park. "You didn't need a Derby contender back in the early '50s to draw this kind of crowd."

Trombetta, whose son trains Kentucky Derby-bound Sweetnorthernsaint, knew horse racing at a time when, along with baseball and boxing, it wasn't just the Sport of Kings, but the king of sports. He grew up hanging around the long-shuttered Maria's 300, a famous restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy that attracted jockeys, trainers and owners getting off of work at Pimlico, as well as Hollywood stars such as Dean Martin.

Racing has declined in popularity since then, but fast horses like Sweetnorthernsaint rekindle the excitement every year during the Triple Crown season.

Since winning the $500,000 Illinois Derby on April 8 by 9 1/4 lengths, Sweetnorthernsaint is not only a contender to win this year's Kentucky Derby, but among the favorites. The dark bay gelding is the first horse based at one of the Maryland racetracks to go to the Derby since Talk Is Money finished last in 2001.

The elder Trombetta, retired from the construction business, gave his son his start in racing, bringing him around the backstretch at Pimlico at age 13 to meet the people who handled his horses.

"I took him like any son you take to a football game," Trombetta said. "I took him to the track."

Michael Trombetta has successfully trained horses for 20 years at Laurel Park but never had one as talented as Sweetnorthernsaint. While he hasn't faced the quality of horse that will show up in the starting gate May 6, speed figures used by handicappers suggest Sweetnorthernsaint is among the fastest horses of his generation.

The Laurel Park media office set up the morning event yesterday to try to take some of the increasing burden off the trainer's back and also give him a taste of what the backstretch at Churchill Downs will be like.

Michael Trombetta plans to work Sweetnorthernsaint on Saturday morning at Laurel and then put the horse on a van April 25 bound for Louisville. Once he arrives, Sweetnorthernsaint will have one more workout before the big race and spend the rest of his time getting acclimated to the surroundings and galloping for maintenance.

"We're living a little bit of a daydream with this guy, and, hopefully, he can take us a little bit further," Michael Trombetta said.

Living in the Perry Hall neighborhood of Baltimore, Michael Trombetta grew up 25 minutes from Pimlico. Asked what it would feel like to bring the Derby winner to the Preakness, he said: "The Preakness would be extremely special. The Derby is the one everyone aspires to, but considering I've watched the Preakness from the bleachers the past 20 years, I can't even tell you how sweet it would be."

Rudy Trombetta, who has owned racehorses for more than 30 years and now raises them on a 15-acre farm in Baldwin, Md., with another son, Dino, will be going to the Kentucky Derby for the first time.

"Someone asked me one time what it feels like when you win a race," he said, "and the only way I could describe it is like kicking the field goal to win the Super Bowl. And that's just winning a race. The Derby? Oh, my God."

Racing Note: Discreet Cat, the undefeated colt who last won the $2 million United Arab Emirates Derby in his third career start, will skip the Triple Crown races, Godolphin Racing announced yesterday. The colt, trained by Saeed bin Suroor for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum in Dubai, will be transported to Belmont Park next month to prepare for major races for 3-year-olds later this year.

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