03/15/2006 12:00AM

After 30 years, Amonte gets his shot

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Frank Amonte Jr. took over as trainer for Ernie Paragallo last week, won his first race for Paragallo on Wednesday, and will saddle Achilles of Troy, a Kentucky Derby contender, on Saturday.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Last summer, Frank Amonte Jr. was out of work. Having quit his job as an assistant to trainer Gary Contessa to try and go out on his own, Amonte's only horse got hurt and was sold as a riding horse.

While he waited for the next training opportunity to come, Amonte took a job last August as an exercise rider for Paraneck Stable, headed by Ernie Paragallo. Eight months later, Amonte is now the head trainer for Paraneck, whose stable includes the highly regarded 3-year-old Achilles of Troy. Coming off authoritative victories in the Count Fleet and Whirlaway stakes, Achilles of Troy figures to be first or second choice in Saturday's Grade 3, $200,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, an important race on the road to the Kentucky Derby.

"Ernie's given me a good shot and I'm really glad," said the 47-year-old Amonte, son of the still-active, 70-year-old jockey Frank Amonte Sr.

The elder Amonte, who is the oldest rider to have won a race - at age 69 and 364 days - was also happy for his son. The two weren't speaking for a few months, but Amonte called his son to congratulate him on his new post.

"I think Frankie's capable of taking care of business there - he's been doing it there for ages," said Amonte Sr., who is sidelined with a couple of broken toes. "He's been on the track 30 years; he's not a newcomer. Frankie knows what to do. He's a pretty good horseman."

Amonte Jr. officially took over as Paraneck's trainer last week when Paragallo and trainer Jennifer Pedersen parted company after five years together. He won his first race for Paraneck on Wednesday when Fuego Grande rallied to win a New York-bred allowance race by a nose. In December 2003, Amonte was credited with three wins when he filled in for a suspended Contessa.

Asked why he didn't seek a more experienced trainer, Paragallo said: "He's a hard worker, that's all you can ask for. We needed somebody who was familiar with the operation.

"The horses are running well, why make a change? And there's not an overabundance of top-quality trainers out there anyway."

At Aqueduct's winter meet, Paraneck is the second leading owner in wins with 17 and leads all owners in purse money won with more than $600,000.

As the son of a jockey, Amonte, a Brooklyn native, has been around horses most of his life. He knocked around the backstretches of many tracks. Amonte worked for several outfits in New York and was working as an exercise rider for trainer Neal Terraciano in the early 1990's when he was hurt in an accident. Amonte was putting a horse back in his stall one day when the horse slipped and fell right on top of him.

Amonte needed two shoulder operations and had four bulged discs in his neck. He was off the track for seven years. Amonte received a call one day from his brother Andrew, who was working for Contessa at the time. Amonte went to work for Contessa as an assistant, and worked for him for five years.

"He's a good horseman on top of a horse," said Contessa, who is the meet's leading trainer with 53 wins. "When he's on a horse he can tell you a lot about that horse; that is his strength."

Achilles of Troy is certainly the strength of the stable. A gray son of Notebook, Achilles of Troy took four tries to win his maiden. But he was most impressive taking the Count Fleet by 14 lengths and was even more professional winning the Whirlaway by 4 3/4 lengths.

Amonte thought highly of Achilles of Troy as early as last summer, when he exercised the horse on a few occasions. He believes Achilles of Troy has improved since his last race, and he's looking forward to trying tougher rivals Saturday, such as the undefeated Keyed Entry and the talented Sweetnorthernsaint. Achilles of Troy completed preparations for the Gotham with a half-mile move in 50 seconds, getting his final eighth in 12 seconds.

"He has been different since his last race," Amonte said. "He's really come around; he's starting to fill out nicely. [Tuesday], I went into his stall to do something with him and he turned around and tried to bite me. He had never done that before. He had always been quiet; he's getting real good now."

Good enough to allow Amonte to dream.

"I've been having dreams of him winning the Gotham, Wood, and Derby," Amonte said. "To go to the Kentucky Derby, that's a dream everybody has. I can't wait for Saturday."