`Saint' returns to competition in Laurel claimer

Preakness runner-up to run for first time since May 20 race

Horse Racing

October 19, 2006|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

Sweetnorthernsaint is back from vacation and ready for work.

That's the assessment of trainer Mike Trombetta, who will send the star 3-year-old gelding to the gate today in the eighth race at Laurel Park for the first time since he finished second to Bernardini in the Preakness on May 20.

"The Saint" returns to action in a $36,000, seven-furlong optional allowance claimer.

Obviously, as apple of his owners' eyes, Sweetnorthernsaint is not available for claiming.

"He's in this race because we wanted to try to get a race back in him without having to ship," Trombetta said. "It's an allowance race for which he is eligible, and it isn't often you can find those. When you have a horse of this quality who races at the higher level, you know he is going to have to do a good bit of traveling throughout the season."

Sweetnorthernsaint was in training until just before the Belmont Stakes, when owners Ted Theos and Joseph A. Balsamo suggested Trombetta take the horse back to his farm instead of to New York for the last leg of the Triple Crown.

"We had decided after the Preakness that he would try the Belmont," said Theos, who will be at the track today. "Then we noticed he had lost a lot of weight. The Triple Crown took its toll. I told Mike to take him back to the farm and let him be a horse for a while, running in the fields, eating grass.

"It freshened him up. He gained weight. Now he's back in training and he's a happy horse."

Last March, Sweetnorthern- saint went on the road to New York for the Grade III Gotham Stakes, where he finished third, a neck and a half behind the winner. He returned to Laurel Park and then was on the road again in April for the Grade II Illinois Derby, which he won in dominating style by nine lengths. From there, it was again back to Laurel and then on to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, where he was the top betting choice.

In the Derby, "The Saint" ran into all kinds of trouble from the gate in the 20-horse field, but still managed to finish a respectable seventh.

"He spent over 40 hours in the back of a horse van," Trombetta said. "Fortunately, he's a good shipper, but the travel and the preparation, it all adds up. Horses are athletes, and like human athletes, they get tired, too."

And, like a human athlete, it takes time to recondition a horse's body after time away from training, "at least a good two months," Theos said.

"Being overeager or overaggressive can set you back," Trombetta said. "You need to be patient and let them progress at their own pace. He's an athlete, and he needs confidence, too. There is no quicker way to take that away than to make them run before they're ready."

So after a five-month break, Theos and Trombetta believe Sweetnorthernsaint, who will be ridden by Ramon Dominguez, is eager to get back on the racetrack.

"He looks wonderful," Theos said. "He looks happy. And we do expect to win."

After the race, Trombetta and the owners will plot a course for Sweetnorthernsaint's next few races, which could take him from New York to Florida and points in between.

"He belongs in Grade I stakes," Theos said. "He deserves to be running with the top horses. But we're giving him a race here to start. He's coming back from a long layoff with the home-court advantage. And we're letting the people in Maryland see him again."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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