Gotham test for Crown

Horse racing


NEW YORK -- The phone rang and Ted Theos heard the voice of trainer Mike Trombetta.

"My friend," Trombetta said, "if you want to win the Gotham, you're going to have to do it from the 10th hole."

Theos laughed, recalling the conversation about tomorrow's $200,000, Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct and Sweetnorthern- saint, the thoroughbred he co-owns with fellow Baltimore resident Joseph Balsamo.

"Four months ago, if you would have told me we'd be doing this [competing in a Triple Crown prep race], I would have said, `You're crazy!' But he's come a long way. Three, four months ago, he woke up."

Sweetnorthernsaint has gone from a 12th-place finish in his first career race last August and from being a claiming horse in December to a believable contender on the Triple Crown trail, having crossed the finish line first in each of his last three races.

Though Sweetnorthernsaint's Dec. 21 win in a $40,000 claiming race was disallowed for interference, his next two victories by a total of 17 1/2 lengths reflected his fine speed and earned him respect among industry experts, some of whom have rated him among the top 10 Kentucky Derby prospects.

Tomorrow, however, for the first time Sweetnorthernsaint goes up against at least two other horses recognized as possible Derby contenders - Achilles of Troy and Keyed Entry.

In tomorrow's other stakes race at Aqueduct - the Grade III $100,000 Cicada, a six-furlong race for 3 year-old fillies - Celestial Legend, a Maryland-bred undefeated in six starts and running in her first graded stakes, has been made the early line favorite and will start from the No. 4 post.

"She's doing well," said trainer Dale Capuano of the filly who has won in a variety of ways. "She's game and pins her ears and fights when she has to. She's never really had any breaks and she doesn't have to have things her own way."

In the Gotham, Sweetnorthern- saint will begin answering a number of questions.

Among them: Is he equal to Achilles of Troy, who is also undefeated in his last three starts? And is he more than a sprinter? Sweetnorthernsaint has shown well at distances under a mile, but the 1 1/16 Gotham should tell if he can go the two turns necessary to compete in the rugged Triple Crown series.

"He can win," Trombetta said. "But drawing the 10th hole, it makes it more difficult. There's nothing I can do about it. It's why they call it `The luck of the draw.' It's also why the riders get paid - to make those decisions."

Sweetnorthernsaint will be ridden by two-time Kentucky Derby winner Kent Desormeaux.

Desormeaux began his career in Maryland riding for, among others, Trombetta, who seems pleased to have such sure hands guiding his horse after learning Mario Pino, who rode Sweetnorthernsaint in Laurel's Miracle Wood Stakes, would be unavailable because of hernia surgery, and that Ramon Dominguez, who rode the horse in an Aqueduct victory on the same inner track he will run on tomorrow, was already committed to Achilles of Troy.

In Sweetnorthernsaint, Desormeaux will have a horse who has changed his ways.

Theos and Balsamo bought Sweetnorthernsaint privately as a yearling from Florida breeder Eduardo Azpurua for an undisclosed price. They learned during his 2-year-old season that the horse was what Theos calls "a playboy."

"Let's say he had his mind on things other than racing," Theos said.

And those things led to behavior issues, said Trombetta, adding, "The decision was made to geld him because he wasn't paying attention.

"It got his mind back on racing," added Theos.

Once Sweetnorthernsaint began concentrating on his job, Trombetta began the process of turning him into a winner.

"It required a good bit of work," Trombetta said.

Part of that work was learning to break well from the gate, a talent he has mastered.

NOTES -- Two other Maryland-breds will be running in big races this weekend. Point Determined, sired by Point Given and bred at the Bowman & Higgins Stable on the Eastern Shore, will run in the Grade II San Felipe at California's Santa Anita tomorrow. And Travelin Leroy, bred by Maryland's Dennis Drazin, will run in the Grade III Rebel at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Laurel Park will take entries today for turf races scheduled for Wednesday, a sure sign spring is around the

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