`American' ends trainer's dream ride

May 11, 1999|By John Eisenberg

With his jacket collar turned up on a cool, sunny morning, Eduardo Caramori stood on the grass by the stakes barn at Pimlico yesterday, watching his colt, First American, chow down on a lush, post-gallop snack.

"The Triple Crown is like a big wave that carries you," he said. "It's hard to get on. But it's even harder to get off."

The smile on his face disguised his disappointment.

Caramori had jumped off the wave minutes earlier, just after dawn, electing to withdraw First American from the Preakness because of a minor lung ailment.

"He's looking good, eating good and training good," said Caramori, a trainer born and raised in Brazil but now based in Kentucky. "The horse is fine. But these big races are tough enough when everything is going perfect. When it's not [perfect], you have to be realistic."

Being realistic is easy when you're Bob Baffert or D. Wayne Lukas, with dozens of Triple Crown candidates passing through your barn every year.

When you're one of the little guys, for whom even a fringe Triple Crown horse is a rare blessing, being realistic can be heartbreaking.

"You dream about having a horse in the Triple Crown," Caramori said. "That's the basis of our whole business. You hope you don't get up every morning at five o'clock to settle for average horses."

He shook his head as he stood in the bright morning sun.

"We're already here and we really want to run, but there's an alarm going off in my head, telling me it's a bad idea," he said. "This is a good horse who is going to do good things. We have to take care of him."

First American is the first major-leaguer Caramori, 40, has trained since coming to the United States in 1992 after winning every race there was to win in Brazil.

"We were on top down there, with all the best owners and facilities," he said. "Here, it's been the opposite."

Not that he regrets moving. He lives on a five-acre farm near Lexington with his wife and two children, and he trains a public stable of 15 horses based at the Kentucky Horse Center. His family is happy and business isn't bad.

A wealthy Brazilian owner sent him First American, a bay colt with the same sire as last year's Triple Crown star, Real Quiet. Expectations weren't overly great at first.

"Remember how they nicknamed Real Quiet `The Fish' because he was so thin as a youngster? This horse looked like a giraffe," Caramori said.

First American hasn't raced to Real Quiet's high standard, but he has accumulated almost a quarter-million dollars in earnings in nine starts, which isn't bad.

A win in the Flamingo Stakes in early April convinced Caramori to run in the Kentucky Derby, but, as was true for many of the 19 entries in the congested Derby, things went poorly. First American broke slowly, moved up to fifth along the rail on the backstretch, then faded to 16th as a 35-1 shot.

"We had a chance as good as anyone's in a big field like that," Caramori said. "But the race wasn't good for us."

A veterinarian's post-race exam uncovered the mild lung ailment, but it was so minor that Caramori still shipped First American to Pimlico last week, fully expecting to run in the Preakness.

"He deserved the chance," Caramori said. "We figured two weeks was enough time to get him ready."

The colt settled in quickly at Pimlico, but mild inflammation in an ankle with a bone chip postponed a workout, and then the vet delivered more bad news yesterday. Caramori knew it was wrong to press on.

"You have to go with your instincts," he said. "It's very disappointing, but what can you do? I just have to go home, go back to work and try to develop another First American."

Suddenly, instead of prepping for his first Preakness, he had a long checklist of unhappy things to do. He had to call the colt's jockey, Eddie Delahoussaye, in California, and the owner, Goncalo Torrealba, in Brazil, and give them the bad news. He had to arrange First American's trip back to Kentucky today. Surgery to remove the bone chip is now scheduled for tomorrow.

He'd jumped off the big wave.

"I had a great time here, eating crab cakes and all, and I'm sure the Preakness is a great experience, just like the Derby was," Caramori said. "But it has to be a great experience for the horse. And it wouldn't be if I sent him out [to race at] less than 100 percent. He'd still try his hardest. And that's when bad things happen."

If he were a Baffert or a Lukas, he could reach into his barn and find another contender. But little guys don't have that luxury.

"I don't have anyone on the bench," he said with a smile, copying Lukas' habit of using basketball analogies. "When I get a horse like this, he has to play all 48 minutes."

And if he can't, the game is over.

It's as simple, and sad, as that.

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