02/17/2006 1:00AM

Azpuruas could see this Derby hopeful coming


The Azpurua clan is stingy with given names. The three brothers who emigrated from Venezuela some 40 years ago are Manuel, Leo, and Eduardo. All of them have prospered in the Thoroughbred business, and many of their sons and nephews are continuing the line. Eduardo Azpurua Sr. owns and operated Shangri-La Farm, andis also the breeder of Kentucky Derby hopeful Sweetnorthernsaint, who won the Miracle Wood at Laurel on Feb. 4.

Eduardo Sr.'s sons Eduardo Jr. and Manuel own and operate the Azpurua Brothers training center in Ocala, Fla. Leo, Eduardo Sr.'s son, was a successful trainer until a few years ago, when a growing family and a booming Florida economy persuaded him to become a realtor, and he has since prospered in that profession as well.

The Azpuruas know how to scout a racehorse and know what to do when a good one comes along. Eduardo Sr. made headlines training multiple graded stakes winner Mi Selecto for client and friend Roberto Agusti. Eduardo purchased Mi Selecto for $40,000 at the 1986 Keeneland September sales. During Mi Selecto's successful campaign under Eduardo Sr., Eduardo Jr. was training another exceptional turf horse, Caltech, winner of one of the last renewals of the Grade 1 Washington, D.C. International.

Leo Sr. has the dubious distinction of starting one of the smallest horses ever to compete in the Kentucky Derby, Sir Sir, who was right around 14 hands. The Kentucky Derby chart of 1977, Seattle Slew's year, says that Sir Sir was bothered at the start.

"He was a good horse, but not that good," said Leo Sr. "My jockey said that they had a rough trip. Hard to tell - he was surrounded by bigger horses and literally out of sight."

Leo Sr. and Eduardo Sr. are regulars at Azpurua Brothers training center.

"I watched Sweetnorthernsaint develop at the training center last winter," says Leo Sr., "and I could see that he was going to be a good horse."

Leo Sr. has an ongoing relationship with Joseph J. Balsamo and Ted Theos and acted as agent for them in the purchase of several stakes winners, including Grade 1 winner Plenty of Light, who was trained by Leo Jr. Leo Sr. recommended Sweetnorthernsaint, and the Balsamo-Theos partnership bought the then 2-year-old colt.

Shangri-La Farm has about 100 mares grazing in its paddock. Three of the mares belong to Azpuruas, including Ice Beauty, the dam of Sweetnorthernsaint. Eduardo Sr. said that Ice Beauty was a good racemare, a mile being her best distance, but she had a temperament problem - a problem that she passed along.

"They had to geld Sweetnorthernsaint because he was becoming difficult to manage," he said.

Eduardo Sr.'s breeding program requires knowledge of bloodlines. He said he likes to blend as much early 20th century Mahmoud and Hyperion genes as he can get in his foals, and both Ice Beauty and Sweetsouthernsaint, the sire of Sweetnorthernsaint, carry such a mix.

There are two younger siblings to Sweetnorthernsaint. Royal Goliath, a 2-year-old, is what his name suggests, and he is in training. The yearling brother has yet to be named. Ice Beauty was supposed to return to the court of Sweetsouthernsaint, but Sweetsouthernsaint was sidelined late last season when he was kicked by one of his mates, and Ice Beauty was not bred. This year she goes to Tiger Ridge.

Asked if he thought Sweetnorthernsaint would get the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby, Eduardo Sr. said in so many words: the mare was a miler, the sire was a router, and he thinks that Sweetnorthernsaint will get the distance.

"Any horse can get a distance if you give him enough time," he said.