Published May 05, 2006
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Not a favorite, still a threat.
That's the line on Sweetnorthernsaint for Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
As a 2-year-old colt last summer, he got loose in the paddock at Colonial Downs in Virginia and ran through the barn area, then finished 12th in a 14-horse field.
Five races later, as a 3-year-old gelding, Sweetnorthernsaint drew off to a 9 1/4-length victory in the Illinois Derby to stamp himself a Derby contender.
The win was so impressive, Sweetnorthernsaint is the fourth betting choice at 10-1 in the 20-horse field, behind Brother Derek, Barbaro and Lawyer Ron.
"It's been amazing," co-owner Ted Theos said Thursday. "I've never in my life seen a horse progress in such a short time and run races that usually take horses about 8-to-10 races before they become professional. But he learned quick, and I hope we haven't seen the best of him yet."
And after a solid six-furlong workout at Churchill Downs over the weekend, trainer Michael Trombetta sounds confident about his first Derby starter.
"All his stuff has fallen into place really well," Trombetta said. "He's prepared."
There seems to be a lot of optimism surrounding Sweetnorthernsaint, even though his career started so badly and his jockey, two-time Derby winner Kent Desormeaux failed to show up for the gelding's final tuneup a few days ago.
"With all the chaos that's gone on, he's come through it and seems to be improving," the 39-year-old Maryland trainer said.
For his part, Desormeaux was embarrassed by missing a wakeup call for the 7 a.m. workout. But he's well aware he'll be aboard a talented horse.
"I envision myself a few lengths behind the leaders," the Hall of Fame rider said. "My horse is very fast, has a high rate of cruising speed and a nice kick at the end.
"Can he do it after a mile? No one knows about any of them but I am confident in suggesting that he's one who can."
It took awhile, but Sweetnorthernsaint cleaned up his act after a wild debut. Before his first start, he got loose in the paddock and ran through the barn area.
"It was about 100 degrees, and I'm sure it took every ounce of energy he had," Trombetta said. "And then they ran him."
Sweetnorthernsaint finished 24 lengths behind the winner. Owners Joseph Balsamo and Ted Theos then hired fellow Marylander Trombetta as their new trainer.
At the recommendation of previous trainer Leo Azpurua, the horse was gelded (castrated) in an effort to help improve his focus. Then he was sent back to the farm "to just be a horse again."
When he showed up at Laurel in December, nearly five months after his horrible debut, Sweetnorthernsaint finished first by 16 lengths. But he was disqualified for bumping at the start.
He won his next start, at Aqueduct under Ramon Dominguez, and offers to buy the horse, including one from trainer Bob Baffert, were turned down.
Sweetnorthernsaint won again at Laurel under Mario Pina, but the rider was sidelined because he needed hernia surgery.
Enter Desormeaux, who had recently left California to ride in New York. Sweetnorthernsaint finished third in the Gotham Stakes under Desormeaux, and then ran off to an impressive win in the Illinois Derby.
Trombetta was thrilled to get Desormeaux, one of Maryland's top riders in the 1980s before leaving for California in 1990.
Desormeaux won the Derby in 1998 with Real Quiet and in 2000 with Fusaichi Pegasus. He is looking to revive his career back East after several lean years out West.
"He an exceptionally good rider, and he's had the opportunity to ride the biggest races throughout the land," Trombetta said. "So he's very confident under pressure, and that's the kind of person I was looking for."