Never one of the guys

Horse racing: Jenine Sahadi's record as a trainer speaks for itself, but, in the closed world of the backstretch, she still finds herself on the outside looking in.

May 02, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Jenine Sahadi couldn't be nicer when reporters ask for interviews. She worked seven years in the publicity department at Hollywood Park, and she knows what the media need.

But sooner or later, when the questions turn to her gender, Sahadi begins shifting weight from one sneaker-covered foot to the other. She knows what's coming.

Sahadi trains The Deputy, one of the prime contenders Saturday in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. No female trainer in the history of the Derby has saddled the winner.

"If I think of it in those terms," Sahadi said, "I"ve got 126 years of tradition working against me."

Actually, 125. This will be the 126th Derby. But in the past century and a quarter, the closest any of the nine female trainers came to the winner's circle at the Derby was Shelley Riley, a Northern California conditioner, whose Casual Lies finished second in 1992 to Lil E. Tee.

Sahadi's The Deputy is the strongest candidate for Derby stardom of any entrant previously trained by females. The lowest odds of any of their horses was 9-1, and that was only because they were part of the mutuel field, coupled in the wagering with other likely also-rans.

The Deputy will surely be lower than 9-1. He may even be the gamblers' second choice behind solid favorite Fusaichi Pegasus, the only horse to beat The Deputy in America. An Irish-bred who raced five times last year on English turf, The Deputy has won three of four races in this country, all at Santa Anita Park.

Sahadi welcomed him into her Southern California barn last fall after Barry Irwin purchased a 50-percent interest in the colt on behalf of his Team Valor syndicate.

Team Valor owned Captain Bodgit, the 1997 Derby runner-up trained by Marylander Gary Capuano. Gary Barber, whose company, Spyglass Entertainment, released last year's hit film "The Sixth Sense," bought the other half of The Deputy.

Sahadi ran him first on turf Jan. 2 in a one-mile stakes. He won by a length. Then she transferred him to dirt Jan. 30 for the Grade II, 1 116-mile Santa Catalina Stakes. He won again by a length, defeating High Yield and Captain Steve, two of the horses he'll face in the Derby.

The Deputy missed about three weeks of training in February because of torrential rain. He probably wasn't completely fit for his initial showdown with Fusaichi Pegasus March 19 in the 1 116-mile San Felipe Stakes. Carrying 6 more pounds after his seven-week layoff, The Deputy finished three quarters of a length behind the winner.

But then Fusaichi Pegasus traveled East, where he overpowered a strong field in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. The Deputy remained in the West and dominated tough opponents April 8 in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby.

And now those two 3-year-olds --and at least 18 others -- have gathered here at Churchill Downs for another renewal of the Kentucky Derby. A full roster of 20 seems assured. Despite one of the deepest and most competitive fields in years, the trainer attracting the most attention is the one who could make gender history: Jenine Sahadi.

Although The Deputy is her first Derby horse, Sahadi has earned the chance.

She became the first female trainer to win a Breeders' Cup race -- and a $1 million race -- when her Lit de Justice captured the 1996 Sprint at Woodbine. The next year, she repeated in the Sprint with Elmhurst at Hollywood Park. And last month, when The Deputy won the Santa Anita Derby, Sahadi became the first female trainer to win that historic race.

The 37-year-old daughter of Helen and Fred Sahadi, former owners of Cardiff Stud Farm in California, Sahadi knew she would end up working with horses. She just wasn't sure in what capacity.

"I don't know anybody who said when they were 7 they wanted to be a horse trainer," Sahadi said. "Most everybody falls into it for the love of the animal."

And Sahadi, a trainer for seven years, loves animals more than most. She trains only 15, but in her eyes they're as much pets as racehorses.

"I'd like to think racing's about taking the best possible care of the animal," Sahadi said. "No matter what you say, a happy horse is going to perform better than an unhappy horse."

She feeds them all kinds of snacks. Her filly Crissy Aya ate watermelon, burritos, sugar doughnuts and M&M's by the pound.

"When I'd walk in in the morning, she'd start whinnying," Sahadi said, beaming. "She knew food was on the way."

When horses she trains retire or run out of chances on the track, she makes sure they have a good home. She has given horses to mounted-police units and groups that assist handicapped children.

She turned her graded-stakes-winning Sir Mark Sykes into her stable pony.

"He's having a ball. He loves it," Sahadi said. "To me, he's got a great life."

Irwin, part-owner of The Deputy, said Sahadi possesses that special quality required to train horses.

"It's indefinable, intangible," Irwin said. "It separates the trainers who win from the ones who don't. She's got a real bond with these horses."

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