Griffinite's Leigh-Pedersen practices open-barn policy

May 16, 2001|By John Eisenberg

THERE ARE topics that just don't get discussed around thoroughbred barns, at least not within earshot of reporters on the Triple Crown trail. The trainers' insecurities. The horses' ailments, treatments and shortcomings. Owners who push hard. Such touchy subjects almost always are dealt with privately.

But those rules are ignored around Griffinite, the longest shot in Saturday's Preakness at 50-1 on Pimlico's early line.

The winner of the Lafayette Stakes in Kentucky last month comes with no shortage of potentially delicate subjects, but don't worry, it's fine to bring up any of them.

The throat fungus, sore feet, occasionally lackadaisical training and starting-gate miseries that have marked the past six months?

"I just call him my problem child," trainer Jennifer Leigh-Pedersen said yesterday.

The headstrong ways of New York owner Ernie Paragallo, who has run through three trainers and four jockeys in Griffinite's past five races?

"I guess it's no wonder the horse is a little psycho," Leigh-Pedersen said.

And what about Leigh-Pedersen herself, who has spent the past two years managing Paragallo's farm in upstate New York and began training just two months ago?

"I've got a lot to learn," she said. "If I get called back to the farm, fine. A horse of this caliber probably is better off with someone with 25 or 30 years of [training] experience. I'm just doing the best I can."

Let's just say you won't hear that from D. Wayne Lukas or Bob Baffert.

Not that Leigh-Pedersen, 38, is a soft touch. She's the ninth female trainer in Preakness history, and proud of it, but please, no stereotyping allowed. The trainer from the New York borough of Queens has spent more than two decades in racing and exudes a tough set of streetwise sensibilities.

Told that Baffert, who has clashed with other female trainers, was scheduled to arrive at Pimlico today, she said: "People have mentioned to me, `Oh, he'll bring you down.' I say, `Bring it on, baby. I'm a lot tougher.' "

She'd better be to work for Paragallo, a hands-on owner who has fired two trainers since November.

"He's tough," Leigh-Pedersen said, "but he's won two Breeders' Cup races. Give me that any day. I just give it to him straight and we get along great. He has the utmost respect for me. He has seen me work with his horses on the farm."

Griffinite, a son of Unbridled's Song, broke his maiden at Belmont and finished third and sixth in a couple of stakes races last fall before Paragallo changed trainers. Pointed toward Florida's Derby preps, he missed the season with various ailments and - after another trainer was fired - made his 2001 debut in the Lafayette, a seven-furlong race at Keeneland on April 11.

"He was acting up in the gate [before the race] and someone said something and I turned and said, `That's my horse,' " Leigh-Pedersen said. "Then, when he won, I turned and said it again really loud, `That's my horse!' "

He finished second in the Lexington Stakes 10 days later at Keeneland to run his career record to three wins, a second, a third and $215,000 in earnings in eight starts - not bad. He's also one of the most impressive-looking horses in the Preakness field, large and muscular and fit.

"He's buff, no doubt about it," Leigh-Pedersen said. "He's got a ton of ability, and he's doing great."

So why is he 50-1?

For starters, he has never raced around two turns; his longest race so far has been 1 1/8 miles, a sixteenth shorter than the Preakness, and that resulted in his only out-of-the-money finish in his past five starts.

"That's the only thing that makes me nervous," Leigh-Pedersen said. "He hasn't had a [long, tough] campaign like the rest of them. I would like him to have one or two more races under his belt going into this. But he's bred to go [longer distances], and he shows me in the mornings that he can run all day."

He also will have a new jockey for the fifth straight race; Leigh-Pedersen announced yesterday that New York-based Shaun Bridgmohan, 21, will make his Triple Crown debut Saturday.

It's quite a leap for Leigh-Pedersen and Bridgmohan to take on the Kentucky Derby winner, Monarchos, and such formidable teams as Baffert and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey with Congaree.

"I try not to think about the circumstances; I'm just focusing on my horse and what he needs," Leigh-Pedersen said. "I've been working with horses since I was 16. I showed up one day at the gate at Aqueduct and stood there waiting for someone to give me a job. I've done a little bit of everything since then, at farms, on the track, everything."

Now, suddenly, she's overseeing a stakes-winning horse running in the Preakness.

"I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't nervous," she said. "I'm extremely nervous. I'd love to bring my kids down [from New York] for the race, but they're going to stay home. It's too crazy. I'm probably going to be throwing up before the race. That's what I usually do."

As we said: No subject is off limits around this horse.

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