06/25/2009 11:00PM

A banner year not without setbacks


AUBURN, Wash. - Tim McCanna doesn't want to talk about rotten luck, losing, or any other misfortune. And why would he? The most successful trainer in Emerald Downs history is having another spectacular summer, winning with 29 percent of his starters.

McCanna entered the week with 30 wins in 35 racing days, putting him squarely on pace to break his year-old track record for victories in a season. He saddled 66 winners last season en route to his eighth training title in the track's 13 years. With 674 victories and more than $6 million in career earnings at Emerald, he's furlongs ahead of his leading competitors.

Last week was vintage McCanna - three wins Thursday, one Saturday, and a narrow miss Sunday when Snake Attack, returning from a layoff and overlooked in the wagering at 10-1, finished second by a head in an allowance sprint for 3-year-olds.

The meeting has gone well, though not entirely according to plan.

"It's been up and down," McCanna, 47, said this week from his office at the east end of Barn 12. "We're winning a lot of races, but there are a lot of horses not doing as well as I thought they would."

This was supposed to be the year his horses made a big splash in the 3-year-old division. Snake Attack and Rooster City were stakes-placed at 2, Siberian Cocktail was one of the quickest horses on the grounds, and the unraced Kingledo was waiting in the wings, rippling with promise. None of the four has won a race at the meeting.

Winning. It seems to define him, just as it does his brothers Boone, the top jockey agent at Emerald Downs, and Ray, an owner and Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association board member, and particularly his father, Dan McCanna, a former trainer who thrived at Spokane's Playfair Race Course in the 1970s and 1980s.

"I'm competitive," McCanna said. "I get as wound up for the $3,500 nonwinners as anything else. And I've got to win - I've got three kids I've got to put through college, so I don't have a choice."

McCanna's formula seems simple: Identify horses who can win, give them expert care and training, and put them in the hands of horsemen who share his commitment. Seven of his eight current employees are holdovers from 2008, a loyal group in a transient industry.

Assistant trainer Robert Sodergren has been McCanna's right-hand man for the past couple of years. Foreman Don Gonsalves, a 78-year-old cancer survivor, has been with him for two decades.

"Robert is as good a man as I've ever had work for me," McCanna said. "He's into it, too. He wants to win. And Don has never been late or missed a day in 20 years. He's a good man, a great example for everybody else."

With 53 racing days remaining, McCanna is poised to have a memorable season. He has yet to win a stakes race, but Bound to be M V P, a 6-year-old who won the Chinook Pass Sprint stakes last summer, is back in training after a foot injury, and the 3-year-olds are perking up. Siberian Cocktail was scheduled to breeze this weekend, the first important step in his comeback from a back injury. McCanna expects Rooster City, who broke slowly in his last start en route to a fifth-place finish in the Pepsi-Cola Handicap, to show marked improvement Sunday in the Tacoma Handicap. And Snake Attack looked like a new horse Sunday after a six-week respite.

But racing can be a fickle mistress - even McCanna gets jilted now and then. Kingledo, a full-brother to five-time stakes winner Queenledo, fizzled in his debut May 30 and had to be vanned off Sunday after showing signs of distress after his second race. His first victory will have to wait.

"We sent him back to the farm to learn how to be a racehorse," McCanna said. "He's got a lot of talent, but his motor is running a hundred miles per hour. He breezed 34 and change the first time as a 2-year-old, and we haven't been able to get him slowed down ever since."

But the real heartache came a race later Sunday when Evil Repent, a promising 2-year-old colt owned by Gary Hughes, collapsed and died after finishing fifth in his career debut. Doctors at Washington State University were scheduled to perform an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

"He was cut out to be a really nice horse," McCanna said of Evil Repent, a $15,000 weanling purchase in 2007. "Gary is a great owner and I feel for him. We're fortunate he has other horses, but obviously he was excited about what was going to be his best one. It's a shame."