03/02/2009 12:00AM

Canani the outsider hits new heights


ARCADIA, Calif. - Julio Canani was on the roof. Don't worry. It was no big deal. In the wake of The Pamplemousse's comprehensive victory in the Sham Stakes a half-hour earlier, the trainer was hardly a candidate to jump for anything but joy. He knows all the nooks and crannies of Santa Anita, though, and going from the claustrophobia of the Directors Room to the raucous expanse of the blue-collar friendly Frontrunner Restaurant required merely a quick elevator trip to the press box level, a 25-yard trot across the roof, and descent through a winding, backstage staircase. Voila! His public awaited.

The idea of Canani in the Directors Room was weird enough. It's just as well he fled. Chances are, there have been more informally attired stakes-winning trainers lifting champagne flutes to significant events, but none come to mind. Over the years, Santa Anita has shed most if its Old Pasadena, high-society sheen. Commoners - including, gasp, the media - have become welcome in formerly hallowed enclaves. This, of course, falls into the category of not wanting to be a member of a club that would want me as a member, but that's another tale.

Canani, who is from Peru, feels enough of an outsider as it is, and thrives. He wears his otherness as a defensive cloak, so thick at times that it tends to hide the fact that he is a remarkable horseman who gets astonishingly consistent results from animals who, in his words, were either "retreads or cucarachas" in the eyes of previous handlers.

The Pamplemousse, a $150,000 2-year-old purchase, is not one of those, although Canani will wave four fingers in your face - like Joseph McCarthy with his list of Commies in the State Department - and tell you that four different veterinarians turned down the big gray colt for clients who were in the market for a potential Derby horse.

"They look at his tendons, they thought he was too big, too clumsy," Canani said before the Sham. "He's beautiful. The thing I worry about is that he will do too much. I never work him fast. I woke up at two o'clock last night, worried he might try to do too much in this race."

It is a reasonable fear. Some Thoroughbreds are too fast for their own good. The Pamplemousse won the Sham by six lengths, just cruising at the end and shading 1:48 for the 1 1/8 miles. This is racehorse time, even on a Pro-Ride surface that can lean toward quick. And forget about concerns that The Pamplemousse won't be able to handle the switch to dirt down the road. His high, ground-churning action would seem suited to any main track, unless they turn Churchill Downs into a squash court. Now it's Canani's job to keep the lid on until the time is right.

"I called Julio one day, just to check on things," said Bill Strauss, who owns 20 percent of The Pamplemousse with his brother, Jeff. "I asked him, 'How's our baby?' "

Canani's reply:

"He's no baby. He's a monster."

One of the good guys

The check for $5.7 million cleared and the new IEAH silks looked just fine atop champion Stardom Bound when she made her 3-year-old debut in the Las Virgenes Stakes last month. Every time she runs, though, the spirit of former owner Charlie Cono pervades the atmosphere, as it will again this Saturday when Stardom Bound runs in the Santa Anita Oaks.

It is probably inappropriate to wish for a win as a get well gesture for Cono, 75, who is battling the one-two punch of lupus and pulmonary fibrosis. Let's just say the sight of her, even on television, will do him good.

The last time Cono was seen by the racing public was at the Eclipse Awards ceremony in Miami Beach, Jan. 26, accepting Stardom Bound's honor alongside trainer Chris Paasch. The filly was odds-on, but the owner was a longshot to make the ceremony.

"He shouldn't have been there, but I'm glad he went," Paasch said earlier this week. "It was certainly the culmination of a great year. Going up on stage, he stopped at the bottom of the stairs and said, 'I can't make it.' I told him to just stop, take a little break, and tell me when you're ready. After a few seconds he said, 'Okay, let's go.' "

Stardom Bound was Cono's benediction, a farewell flourish to active participation in a sport he'd loved since his teens in Washington, D.C., when his fellow bellhops were also jockeys, and his track of convenient choice was Bowie. It was less than 10 years ago, though, that Cono got serious about plowing some of his San Diego real estate fortune into a first- class string of Thoroughbreds. With Paasch buying and training, they had a decent collection of decent stakes horses. Then came Stardom Bound.

Cono's legacy in the Southern California community was assured long ago, particularly as a driving financial force behind the Fresh Start Surgical Gifts program, which provides free surgical services to young people with physical deformities. Cono's concern now is that he lives long enough to see another of his projects to completion - the new campus in north San Diego County that will expand the reach of the Training, Education & Research Institute (TERI), serving children who are autistic or severely developmentally disabled.

"Charlie told me once that he thought God put people on earth for different reasons," Paasch said, "and that he was put here to make a bunch of money in order to help a lot of people."

Mission accomplished.