For Maryland trainer, `Sweet' Derby dreams

With little experience but deep roots, Trombetta moves into spotlight

Horse racing


Mike Trombetta appears to be listening intently when questions are asked as he walks along behind his horse, Sweetnorthernsaint, toward the racetrack for a morning workout. But even as Trombetta is answering a question, his eyes never cease watching his horse.

"I like how easily he has been able to do what he's had to do," said Trombetta, whose horse earned his way to Saturday's Kentucky Derby with a nine-length victory in the Illinois Derby three weeks ago. "He's gone a long way in a short time. We're living a little bit of a dream with this guy."

For Trombetta, life turned into a real-life fantasy this spring as The Saint developed into one of the best 3-year-old racehorses in the country, taking him, and the horse's owners, Ted Theos and Joe Balsamo, on the ride of their lives.

Trombetta, who will turn 40 on Oct. 26, has never been close to this stage before, but his roots are deep in racing and he seems at ease with his new fame.

"I'm not nervous," he said. "I know there is going to be a media crush, but as trainers we just need to remember what we are there to get accomplished. It's nice people are interested, but there is still a job to do. I'm not trying to go to Hollywood, I'm trying to win a horse race."

His feet firmly planted, Trombetta grew up in Perry Hall, playing youth sports coached by his father. But by the time he got to high school, he was interested only in horses.

His dad, Rudy, now 72, took him to the racetrack when he was 13, and that was that. By the time he was a senior at Perry Hall High, he was working for Frank Hendricks, mucking out stalls and working as a groom in the morning before going to class.

"I gave him his first job on the backstretch at Pimlico," said Hendricks, 67, who trained horses for 30 years for clients such as Maryland Racing Commission member Alvin Akman and Orioles owner Peter Angelos before retiring to his farm in Monkton.

"And I love that he's going to the Derby. He really deserves it. He's a capable horseman. ... He takes care of the little details. He always has. He learned that, his work ethic and how to treat people, from his dad, and his dad deserves the credit.

"But that kid, from the moment he walked in the gate he knew what he wanted to do and he had a lot on the ball. Of course, this is a biased opinion. I love the kid."

Both Hendricks and Trombetta's wife, Marie, know Trombetta's heart.

"People say training is what he does, but that's not accurate, it's who he is," said his wife of 18 years, adding that he also makes time for his family. In the evenings, he takes his 2-year-old son, Michael Jr., down to see the horses on their 15-acre farm in Baldwin, plays basketball with his daughter, Nicole, 12, and takes them for buggy rides.

"It's amazing," she said. "He incorporates us into his life. When he runs horses at Delaware Park, we pack up a picnic and we go. We make it a family thing."

Recalling the birth of their second son, Dominic, a little over four weeks ago, she said her husband, a stickler for details, sat in her hospital room with piles of papers on his lap, going over charts, trying to figure out whether to send Sweetnorthernsaint to the Wood Memorial or the Illinois Derby.

"He looked up at me, and said, `That's it! We're going to Illinois,'" said Marie, who with her daughter will join Trombetta for the Derby next weekend. "He really is so excited, but he keeps it mostly to himself. I've heard him say many times, `Let the horse do the talking.' It's his big motto."

Trombetta has always excelled. In high school, he took auto shop and won awards for troubleshooting. As a trainer, at tracks where awards are given for the best-looking horse, his grooms consistently win.

"You go to his stable and you see the detailed care," Marie Trombetta said. "You see happy horses."

Trombetta's stables at Laurel Park offer signs of his commitment. Look down the shed row and you'll see well-groomed horses, everything in its proper place, including a blue "Jolly Ball" hanging at each of the 30 stalls.

"They're a horse version of a toy," Trombetta said. "Bouncing it around gives them something to do."

Asked what had drawn him to the business, the trainer patted a nearby horse's neck and said: "I just loved being around these animals. It was and is a place I wanted to be. Nothing in college was interesting to me. This is something I loved."

Over the years, Trombetta has developed a philosophy and style. He willingly tells you it is his job to recognize that each horse is different and to figure out what he can do to make them run their best within their own natural abilities.

As for philosophy, he laughs.

"Win," he said. "That sums it up in three letters."

Winning Saturday won't be easy. As Trombetta looks at what looms ahead for Sweetnorthern- saint, he knows his horse will be going 1 1/4 miles for the first time, will be running in a field of 20 horses, the largest he has ever seen, and running on an unfamiliar racetrack.

"You just hope you've taught him his lessons and that he handles it well," he said. "In the Kentucky Derby, it all has to come together."

It was Trombetta's dad who provided him with the first horse he trained, He Likes Mike. Now, Rudy Trombetta's chest expands just a little when talking about his son.

"He's with his horses 18-19 hours a day," said the elder Trombetta. "He's here at 4:30 a.m., seven days a week for 20-plus years and hopefully another 40 more. It's a hard, tedious business."

And in the end, said the father, no one expects more than a small reward.

"It's everybody's dream to go to the Kentucky Derby, but it's only a minority group that ever gets there," he said. "I'm surprised, and I'm proud. I'm so proud of him. This is definitely his life. There's nothing he'd rather do than stay with these horses. And now, the most exciting thing that could happen to him has."

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