Trombetta jittery over fast Derby pace

May 05, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Sorry if this dispels any myths, but in the days before the Kentucky Derby, the barn area at Churchill Downs doesn't exactly conjure serene images of rolling bluegrass pastures.

Cars and SUVs rumble through and park all over the place. Hundreds of fans congregate by the track, sip coffee and watch the horses work out. Tour groups roam from barn to barn with shouting guides conducting impromptu interviews with Derby personalities. Nonstop chatter blares on a scratchy public address system. A dozen radio and television shows broadcast live.

It's about as peaceful as a rainy rush hour on the Jones Falls Expressway.

"How you holding up?" someone asked Michael Trombetta, trainer of Maryland-based Sweetnorthernsaint, as he watched a tour group all but smother his horse with attention yesterday.

"I've been doing good so far," Trombetta said, his eyes never swaying from the grooms bathing his horse, "but I can feel it starting to creep up."

He can feel the creeping heat of training a Derby horse the wise guys like, the fourth betting choice out of 20 on the morning line; a horse that, for better or worse, people want to see.

"I knew it was going to be kind of like this," Trombetta said, "but I didn't think I'd need sheriffs to keep people away from him."

There were two officers in front of the barn yesterday after Trombetta asked for help.

"The day before, I came out of the [barn] office and there was a woman standing right in front of the stall, whistling and clucking at the horse," Trombetta said. "Those are his signals to run, and he was getting all fired up. I hated to do it, but I said, `Ma'am, can you please stop?' That's when I knew I had to ask for sheriffs."

Derby regulars and stars such as Todd Pletcher or Bob Baffert know to ask in advance for security, but a Derby rookie like Trombetta, 39, is learning as he goes. The Laurel Park-based trainer solicited little advice from the few Maryland trainers with Derby experience.

"I talked to Bud Delp a little, but that's it," he said. "Basically, I'm winging it."

He probably wouldn't mind the commotion as much if he weren't such an old-school horseman; he raked Sweetnorthernsaint's stall and bathed the horse yesterday rather than hand the tasks off to assistants. That's how he does things.

Julian Wheat, longtime director of horsemen's relations at Churchill Downs, watched with admiration.

"It's great to see a young guy like that get up under a horse and do the work himself," Wheat said. "Mike is the real thing."

But a real thing gets jumpy as the Derby nears, crowds swell and the world starts to close in on you, or so it seems. Trombetta joked with reporters yesterday and seemed almost amused at times by the atmosphere, but acknowledged it was unsettling.

"Fortunately, the horse seems to be handling all this just fine," he said. "Otherwise, I'd be real concerned. Things happen to these horses. You have to pay close attention at all times. People have no idea what kind of trouble they can get into."

Actually, Sweetnorthernsaint's capacity for trouble-making is well known. He got loose from his handlers before a race at Virginia's Colonial Downs last summer and ran around wildly for a few minutes before being corralled. Then he was disqualified from a race he won by 16 lengths in December at Laurel because he veered inside and slammed a rival into the rail coming out of the starting gate.

His behavior was so bad he was gelded last September.

But his considerable talent has matured in the past two months, culminating with a third-place finish in the Gotham Stakes and an astounding runaway in the Illinois Derby, which he won by more than nine lengths.

Some experts mistakenly believe he is a speed horse who will run with blazing Sinister Minister in the early going of tomorrow's Derby, but in fact, he is just as happy trailing early and rallying in the stretch - a style suited to the Derby.

That's probably why his stock is soaring among handicappers.

"If you look at his times from the last parts of his race, he is an excellent finisher. He comes on really strong," Trombetta said. "And he's training well. He's earned the attention he's getting here."

But enough is enough. After a light workout early today, Sweetnorthernsaint will go into his stall and Trombetta will lower blinds shielding him from the world. No more tour groups peering in.

"We're shutting it down," Trombetta said. "At this point, we're just trying to get the horse to the race. When I put [jockey] Kent Desormeaux on him Saturday, my job will be over."

Not a moment too soon, one suspects.

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