03/23/2005 12:00AM

Byrne's pendulum swings upward

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Patrick Lang/Lang Photography
Magna Graduate, who runs in Saturday's Lane's End, is a budding star for Patrick Byrne.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Pat Byrne has been one step from the mountaintop. As someone who came within one vote of winning the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer in 1997, Byrne knows what it's like to experience spectacular success in the racing game.

He also knows what it's like to be just another face on the backstretch. In a parabolic training career that has taken him from the obscurity of Atlantic City Racecourse to the Breeders' Cup Classic winner's circle to simply trying to reprise a semblance of his former glory, Byrne long ago resigned himself to the volatile nature of training racehorses.

"I was one of the golden boys there for a while," he said. "But sometimes people can forget about you real quick."

Saturday, when Turfway Park plays host to the $500,000 , Byrne will be hoping for a new golden moment. Magna Graduate, one of the favorites for the Grade 2 race, will represent Byrne and owner Elisabeth Alexander as he tries to remain a viable candidate for the 131st Kentucky Derby on May 7. For Byrne, victory on Saturday would mean a return to the national racing spotlight, a place he occupied often during his halcyon days of 1997 and 1998.

Magna Graduate came to Byrne after Alexander, a Cleveland-area woman who long has been prominent in the show horse business and on the Ohio racing circuit, bought the colt privately after a second-place finish in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile last September at Turfway. One of nine 3-year-olds likely for the 1 1/8-mile Lane's End, Magna Graduate was a sharp winner of the March 5 John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway in his last start. Byrne, having trained such stars as 1997 Horse of the Year Favorite Trick and 1998 BC Classic winner Awesome Again, knows his way around a top horse. He believes Magna Graduate has the makings of one, saying he has "a lot of upside" and "can run all day," but beyond that, he is unsure.

"I know he's going to be a useful horse, at least," said Byrne, who is based primarily at Churchill Downs. "But if he's going to be one of the top ones, well, that's why we're going up the road Saturday. Obviously we're hoping he's a top horse."

Win or lose, the Lane's End will mark yet another milestone on the long and winding road Byrne has traveled.

Born 49 years ago in London, Byrne, a fifth-generation horseman, came to the United States in 1978 and began working as an exercise rider. In 1986, he began a public stable at Atlantic City and mostly struggled until 1996, when a colt named City by Night won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

As so often happens in racing and other sports, success begat success, and owners began flocking to Byrne. In 1997, he trained Favorite Trick and Countess Diana to Breeders' Cup wins and divisional championships, and he lost the Daily Racing Form bloc by one vote to Bob Baffert for top trainer in the Eclipse Award voting (the other two voting blocs split 1-1). On New Year's Eve, 1997, he announced that he had accepted a job as private trainer of Frank Stronach's powerhouse stable.

That decision had major implications for his professional future. Although Byrne trained Stronach's Awesome Again to an undefeated season, a BC Classic win, and a divisional championship in 1998, he and Stronach had fallen out by year's end, and soon he was starting all over.

More than six years later, it might be said that he still is in the rebuilding process. From 1999 to 2004, his stable averaged $1.23 million in earnings, a far cry from the combined $9 million earned in 1997-98, and his 2004 earnings ($703,845) were his lowest since 1995. The post-Stronach period also has included a 45-day suspension stemming from the highly publicized medication positive of Nani Rose at the 1999 Saratoga summer meet.

Although Byrne has trained the occasional horse for such high-profile clients as Michael Tabor, Stonerside Stable, and Bob and Beverly Lewis, he currently is down to about 10 active runners, with Magna Graduate the lone standout.

Byrne is philosophical about how his career has ebbed and flowed. Although he remains competitive and ambitious, he said racing "has changed so much in the last five years. Now the way to come up with a good horse is to have 150 to 200 horses and get all that exposure. That's not my style. Everybody's different, you know."

Byrne said owners and the media tend to "make super-heroes out of trainers and jockeys, when in fact it's mostly the horse. I've always said: 'It's all about the horse.' Nobody can make a slow horse run fast. So much of what happens is up to the horses themselves."

Byrne is a firm believer in the maxim that people are eager to make heroes out of nobodies, then just as eager to tear them down. "It's funny, but when I was doing all the good, it seems like I didn't have many friends, and now that I'm not doing that good, I've got plenty of friends," he said.

Nonetheless, he is content as to how his career has played out so far.

"This is no 'poor, poor, pitiful me' story," said Byrne, who has lived in Louisville since 1990 with his wife, Jill, and teenage daughter, Devon. "I am very happy with my life and career. I have a nice house, an apartment by the ocean in Florida, my wife is happy, and my daughter is doing great in school. For me to complain about anything would be wrong."

* Magna Graduate will be ridden by Jerry Bailey, a rider switch that seems to assure the colt will draw major wagering action Saturday. The other favorites in the Lane's End could be Spanish Chestnut and Andromeda's Hero, although most of the others are legitimate contenders in what appears to be a very well-matched race.

* The Lane's End is the most important Derby prep of the weekend, although two races that conceivably could have implications also are on tap: the Rushaway at Turfway and the UAE Derby in Dubai. One other race, the Private Terms at Laurel, did not draw any major contenders.

The Rushaway will be the first race for Proud Accolade since the colt won the Feb. 5 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Proud Accolade missed the March 12 Louisiana Derby because of a minor illness.

Next Saturday portends a similarly light prep schedule, with the notable exception of the Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream. The $500,000 WinStar Derby, an ungraded race at Sunland Park, also will be run.

* Rockport Harbor, a game second in his 3-year-old debut last Saturday in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, returned to training as scheduled in a routine gallop Wednesday at Oaklawn. Rockport Harbor had been bothered by a sore foot leading up to the Rebel.

DERBY WATCH

WHO'S HOT: Survivalist, the winner of the Gotham Stakes, is one of three additions to the Derby Watch top 25 this week. He is 30-1 on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Pavo and Vicarage both enter at 60-1. Sun King has inherited the role of Derby favorite, but he remains 8-1. The biggest forward moves made from last week to this were by Consolidator, who is now 12-1 from last week's 40-1 following his victory in the San Felipe Stakes, and Greater Good, who dropped from 40-1 to 15-1 after winning the Rebel.

WHO'S NOT: Golden Shine was dropped from the list following his disappointing effort in the San Felipe, and both Lost in the Fog and Roman Ruler were dropped because they are off the Derby trail. Afleet Alex, Watchmaker's favorite at 6-1 one week ago, floated out to 20-1 after his last-place finish in the Rebel.

ON THE BUBBLE: Andromeda's Hero could move onto the list if he captures the Lane's End at Turfway on Saturday. Proud Accolade seeks a two-turn victory on Saturday in the Rushaway at Turfway. Also worth following are the runners in the United Arab Emirates Derby, including the unbeaten Shamardal.