- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Dominic Trombetta’s life was still being measured in hours, not days, on March 30 when he got an initial glimpse at his father’s lifestyle.

Lying nearby at Greater Baltimore Medical Center was his mother, Marie, who had given birth to Dominic the day before.

Sitting in a chair, hunched over, staring at entry sheets, past performances and racing charts strewn across a table was his father, Michael, a Maryland-based thoroughbred trainer.

Training race horses is an all-consuming profession. It’s seven days a week, early wake-up calls and no vacations. And it’s capitalizing on any chance to get quality work done.

“It was so nice and quiet in there,” Trombetta remembered about his wife’s recovery room. “I sat there, everything spread out, figuring out what I wanted to do.”

It was there that Trombetta decided that Sweetnorthernsaint would run in the Illinois Derby on April 8 instead of the Wood Memorial in New York.

Like most of Trombetta’s decisions this year, Illinois was the right one. Sweetnorthernsaint won by 91/4 lengths, and the 39-year-old will make his Kentucky Derby debut tomorrow at Churchill Downs. Sweetnorthernsaint is the 10-1 fourth choice. Two-time Derby winner Kent Desormeaux will be the rider.

The trip to the Derby is the high point of a training career that started when he was just out of Perry Hall High School in Maryland and a spring that started with the birth of their third child.

“We’ve had the wonderful experience of having the baby and now we have this horse,” Mrs. Trombetta said. “This is hitting me all the time, even when nobody is around. It’s amazing. Him and I were by ourselves and we’re like, ‘I can’t believe we’re here.’”

Trombetta’s father, Rudy, said, “It’s every horseman’s dream. None of us expect it, but we all dream it. I’m so proud of him because he’s carried himself so well through everything because I’ve been around enough to see people who didn’t.”

Trombetta’s road to the Kentucky Derby began as a teenager. His father has owned horses for more than 30 years and always brought sons Michael and Dino to the racetrack. When Trombetta was 13, he began hot-walking horses.

“He’s loved it since Day One,” said Rudy Trombetta, who will be attending his first Kentucky Derby. “He’s always been a dedicated horseman.”

About the time Trombetta decided he was going to train horses, he met Marie in school. When he was studying for his trainer’s license, she would quiz him with questions. They’ve known each other for 23 years and have been married for 17.

At 20, Trombetta won his first race in 1986 when Amant De Cour won at Atlantic City.

Instead of working exclusively as an assistant trainer, Trombetta opted to fly solo, which meant for some rough times in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

“It was a bumpy beginning,” he said. “It’s nearly impossible to get clients because owners don’t know the new kid on the block. I had to earn my way each and every day.

“I got started the hard way — cheap and bottom-end claiming horses. I was struggling. I knew it would take a nice horse or two to get things rolling. It’s taken 20 years to get to where I have a barn full of nice horses.”

Trombetta trained at Timonium, Pimlico, Delaware Park and Laurel and would occasionally have a solid horse. He trained the mid-Atlantic turf star Bop and winners Ghostly Numbers, Love You Madly and Your Bluffing, which was owned by his father.

“There wasn’t one breakthrough horse,” Trombetta said. “I got recognition as being somebody who would claim a horse, train him, win a couple races and then resell the horse. That’s how I made my living.”

Last year, Trombetta won Maryland Trainer of the Year and 53 races and more than $1.5 million in purses nationwide.

This year is shaping up even better, thanks to Sweetnorthernsaint, who already has won $375,000.

“Without Michael’s work, I wouldn’t be [at the Derby] because he’s done a brilliant job,” Sweetnorthernsaint co-owner Ted Theos said. “He’s young, but very focused.”

Sweetnorthernsaint was bred in Florida and made his debut last Aug. 1 at Colonial Downs in New Kent County, Va. It was a debacle. He threw a fit before the race and ran poorly — finishing 12th, 24 lengths behind the winner. Soon after, the colt was gelded to calm him down. It eliminated any future breeding, but kept his racing career alive.

He was sent back to the farm, and Trombetta took over the training when Mr. Theos’ regular conditioner, Leo Azpurua Sr., retired.

Sweetnorthernsaint’s first race for Trombetta was a 16-length win that became a fourth-place finish when he was disqualified for bumping another horse at the start of the race. But through the workouts, the trainer and owner knew they might have something with the dark brown colt.

But Trombetta’s style is not to brag about having a potential star in the barn. His wife said it’s just the opposite.

“He’s very closed-mouth when it comes to that kind of stuff,” she said. ‘He doesn’t walk around saying, ‘This horse is great.’ He’s very low key so he says more when he doesn’t say a whole lot.

“He didn’t come home after he got this horse and didn’t say he was anything great, but when he won in New York, that was a good indication.”

On Jan. 7 at Aqueduct, Sweetnorthernsaint won a six-furlong race by 73/4 lengths. The indication — the colt had speed and the way he finished the race suggested he had enough stamina to run farther. But the Derby? Not yet.

A 10-length win in the Miracle Wood at Laurel followed on Feb. 4 and then a third-place finish in the Grade III Gotham Stakes on March 18 at Aqueduct. That race was at 1 1/16 miles. Trombetta had the Derby in the middle of his mind now, but needed one more prove-it race. His choices were both 11/8 miles — the Illinois Derby or Wood Memorial.

First, though, he became a father for the third time. Dominic was born on March 29, joining Nicole, 12, and Michael Jr., who turns 2 today.

Trombetta’s decision to run in Illinois set up a trip to Kentucky. And a solid Triple Crown campaign by Sweetnorthernsaint could set up Trombetta’s career for a rapid rise.

“Hopefully, it can take me to the next step and that’s the best horses possible,” he said.

Regardless of how Sweetnorthernsaint does in May, Trombetta will continue to work the mid-Atlantic circuit the same way he has for 20 years — scouring the claiming ranks for hidden gems, working with owners to develop 2-year-olds into 3-year-old stars and going home to his wife and three children every night.

“When you do something you like, that’s the place you want to be,” he said. “Not everybody can go to work and be happy about it. Most people I know live for the weekends — so they can get the heck away from work and enjoy themselves. For us, the weekends are work, but that’s fine with me.”

Mrs. Trombetta said, “He’s worked so hard forever. I hate to say it’s a job because he loves it. It’s who he is, not what he does.”

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