02/23/2010 12:00AM

Biancone back with a healthy stack

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Barbara D. Livingston
Pulsion, the runner-up in last year's Grade 1 Norfolk, will make his 2010 debut in Saturday's Grade 2 Fountain of Youth for trainer Patrick Biancone.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Standing along the outer rail while bracing himself against the morning chill at Gulfstream Park on Wednesday, trainer Patrick Biancone barely betrayed a hint of anger over having been suspended one year in the fall of 2007 after three sealed vials of cobra venom were found in his barn at Keeneland. He has either achieved a Zen-like peace with the outcome or has a really good poker face. Perhaps both.

"What was I going to do?" he said. "I could either shoot myself or go play poker."

So he did. The cards came up well for Biancone during the year he was in exile from the sport. He won a couple of tournaments - one online, the other at a Las Vegas casino - and qualified for the World Series of Poker. When his suspension ended in November 2008, however, Biancone set about rebuilding his stable. In 16 months, he already has a full deck.

Biancone will try to head down the Kentucky Derby trail with Pulsion, last year's Norfolk Stakes runner-up, who is scheduled to make his first start of the year in the Grade 2, $250,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes here Saturday. Next Saturday, he will send out his exciting 3-year-old filly Christine Daae in the Grade 2, $150,000 Davona Dale Stakes with the hope she takes the next step toward the Kentucky Oaks. He has several promising imports from Europe. Biancone has 19 horses at Gulfstream, and another 10 at Santa Anita.

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"I've had 83 horses go through my barn in the past year," he said. "I don't keep the bad ones. We are playing the 'A' game, at Santa Anita, Gulfstream, New York. If horses can't do the 'A' game, it's better for them to go somewhere else where they are competitive. Not every kid can go to . . ."

There was a momentary pause, quickly filled in by Biancone's daughter Marie.

"Harvard," she said.

Marie Biancone is her father's assistant. She also trains six horses on her own. And she is his biggest supporter.

"He's very strong," she said. "He amazes me all the time. I don't know anyone who would have handled it like he did. He's very tough. But he always sees the positive in everything. I guess that's what keeps you going in this business. There's a lot of disappointments, and if you stay down, you can't keep going. One year is a long time. He found himself a new passion, for poker. He became very good."

Patrick Biancone, 57, has been an internationally celebrated trainer, achieving great success in his native France as well as in Hong Kong and the United States. But he has either battled (in Hong Kong) or run afoul of (United States) the authorities, and that has made him an enigmatic figure in the sport. He has a core group of loyal, well-heeled owners - such as Carl Lizza, Ken Hui, Richard Giacopelli, and Michael Imperio, the partners in Pulsion, as well as Fabian Ouaki and Coolmore's Michael Tabor and John Magnier - yet is the subject of scorn for his suspension.

"Violations of this nature will not be tolerated," Lisa Underwood, the executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority - now the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission - said at the time of the suspension.

"What happened happened," said Biancone, who said it is important to note he was not suspended for a positive test.

The suspension grew out of a raid at Biancone's Keeneland barn June 22, 2007, when the vials of cobra venom were found in a soft-sided cooler. A veterinarian, Dr. Rodney Stewart, testified that the medication belonged to him, and he was suspended for five years by the Kentucky racing commission. Biancone got one year. What possible good could come out of that?

"I was cooked, burned out," Biancone said. "Since starting at 15 or 16 with my father, it had been 40 years with a barn in my head, all the time. I got my head clear. You need to have plenty of room to play poker. I started buying all the books, read all the books. It's like a sport. When you are playing a tournament, it goes on for so many hours that you need to be organized and disciplined, get your sleep, exercise, clear your head.

"I would be no good now, because I have the barn in my head again," he said. "To be a good trainer, you have to think of the horses all the time. To play poker, you have to think of the cards all the time. You go to bed replaying all the hands, just like you replay all the races. It's the only way you can be good at poker. But I do prefer to train horses."

Since the suspension ended, Biancone has been based in California, where he has a home near Santa Anita, and then branched out to Florida.

States usually honor suspensions through reciprocity. There is no ruling against Biancone, so in California and Florida he received a license to train.

But states are not duty bound to give Biancone a license. In fact, he is not yet licensed in Kentucky. He has not applied for a license there, but obviously would have to do so in order to run horses in his name in the Kentucky Derby or Oaks.

"It's really in Mr. Biancone's court," Underwood said Wednesday. "In some states, licensees are licensed for three years. Our licenses expire each year."

While Biancone is allowed to train in the state at an unlicensed facility, such as a farm, he needs a license to race in Kentucky.

"He will have to appear before the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission's licensing review committee," John Veitch, the state's chief steward, said Wednesday. "That is a requirement."

WHO'S HOT

California-based trainer John Sadler sent out Sidney's Candy to a victory in the San Vicente Stakes on Monday and Dave in Dixie to a second-place finish in the Robert Lewis on Saturday. Both colts were added to this week's top 20 of Derby Watch. They are 20-1 on the Kentucky Derby future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Caracortado, the unbeaten winner of the Lewis, also broke into the top 20 and is 20-1 on Watchmaker's line.

WHO'S NOT

To make room for the three newcomers, three horses on the list last week had to be dropped. Concord Point was removed following a dull try in an allowance race at Santa Anita, Maximus Ruler was removed because a foot problem has forced him to miss the Risen Star Stakes on Saturday, and Uptowncharlybrown, who finished third in the Sam Davis Stakes, was removed to make room for newcomers judged to be better prospects.

ON THE BUBBLE

Discreetly Mine and Tempted to Tapit could vault into the top 20 with excellent efforts in the Risen Star. Ten of the 20 horses on Derby Watch are scheduled to be in action Saturday, so there could be plenty of changes to next week's list and opportunities for newcomers exiting the Fountain of Youth, Risen Star, and Southwest to move onto the list.