05/14/2009 11:00PM

Barn carries on in absence of Roberts

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AUBURN, Wash. - There's business being conducted at the east end of Barn 2 on the Emerald Downs backside, but it's not exactly business as usual. Veteran trainer Craig Roberts has been absent since suffering a stroke more than four months ago. The official program still reads "Craig Roberts, trainer," but assistant trainer Martin Pimentel is running things while Roberts undergoes an arduous rehabilitation program at a nursing facility in Seattle.

Roberts, 77, was stricken in mid-December in Pleasanton, Calif., where he was training horses to run at Golden Gate Fields. He spent nearly two months in hospitals in Northern California before coming home to Seattle, where he suffered a second, less-severe stroke in February.

With his progress coming in fits and starts, these have been difficult days for Pimentel, the other hired hands in Barn 2, and particularly for Connie Roberts, Craig's wife of 38 years.

"He's missing everybody," she said the other day from the couple's home on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill. "He talks about going to work all the time. He wants to get back to the track."

Until then, Connie Roberts is running the business, writing the checks and speaking with Pimentel nearly every day. The barn failed to win with any of its first nine starters at the current meeting, but Connie said they are thrilled with the work Pimentel is doing.

"Martin is very, very good with the horses," she said. "He's got an excellent memory for things. He's doing a wonderful job."

Pimentel met Roberts in California in 1992 and joined him at Longacres that summer for its final season. They've been together for 17 years, Roberts the gracious mentor and Pimentel the rapt student. They've had some glorious highs, including a 1994 victory with former claimer Slew of Damascus in the Grade 1, $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup. It was Roberts's biggest payday in racing. It was big for Pimentel, too; the track gave him a new pickup for grooming the winner.

Pimentel got his assistant trainer's license several years ago at Roberts's urging. Now he's in charge, happy for the opportunity but sad about his boss and an uncertain future.

"We're walking in the clouds right now, because we don't know what's going to happen," he said. "He could be back next year, but he's in a bad situation."

Since 1976, Roberts-trained horses have won 902 races and more than $11 million in purses. But his salad days began years earlier, starting in 1971 when he won the Longacres Derby with Rock Bath. His clients included some of the region's heavy hitters - Howard S. Wright, Dave Heerensperger, Jay Agnew, Irv Levine. He enjoyed considerable success in California after Longacres was shuttered, returning home when Emerald Downs opened for business in 1996.

Wherever he went, the dapper Roberts was the best-dressed man in the room.

"He's full-blooded Italian, believe it or not," Connie Roberts said. "He has always picked out his own clothes; he's very particular about the materials and those things. Women in the stores always figured he was in the clothing business.

"His family name is Roberti, and his Italian name was Eugene. His parents came from Cosenza, they changed their last name to Roberts, and that's how he became Craig Roberts. Everyone always says, 'How can you be Italian with a name like Craig Roberts?' "

In his heyday, Roberts oversaw more than 50 horses in training and owned a 20-acre farm in Enumclaw. He has scaled back in recent years and today there are only 15 horses in his corner of Barn 2.

The stable stars are Exclusive Eagle, a 6-year-old who raced to a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Seattle Handicap on May 3 and is being pointed toward two-turn stakes later in the meeting, and 7-year-old Westsideclyde, a two-time Emerald Downs stakes winner in 2007 who suffered an ankle injury last summer and is working steadily toward a late-June return.

By then, Connie Roberts is hoping, the venerable trainer will be ready for a day at the races.

"When the weather gets warm, I'm going to bring him out to the track so he can be with the horses," she said. "It would be good therapy for him."