09/02/2004 11:00PM

Canani's having a sizzling summer

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Special Ring has one of Julio Canani's five stakes wins at this year's Del Mar meet.

DEL MAR, Calif. - In the 1960's, there was the Summer of Love. On "Seinfeld," there was the Summer of George. And this year at Del Mar, it has been the Summer of Julio.

Trainer Julio Canani has been the unquestioned star this season at Del Mar. With just a modestly sized 25-horse stable, Canani won three of this track's five Grade 1 stakes races, including a one-two finish in the Eddie Read Handicap. He has won two other stakes, giving him five for the meet, more than any other trainer.

Canani could add to another stakes win to his ledger on Monday, when he sends out the probable favorite, Blackdoun, in the Grade 2, $400,000 Del Mar Derby. Blackdoun already has captured the La Jolla Handicap and a division of the Oceanside Stakes. A victory in the derby would make him only the third horse in track history to sweep those three races for 3-year-olds.

Canani has been a fixture on this circuit for 30 years; his first stakes victory at Del Mar came in 1975. Although he does not receive the headlines of some of his better-known brethren, Canani, it can be argued, is as good as anyone at his craft. Consider this: Canani is now tied for eighth on Del Mar's all-time stakes wins list, with Hall of Famer Neil Drysdale. Both have 28. The only names above them include the likes of Charlie Whittingham, Ron McAnally, Bobby Frankel, and Richard Mandella. Yep, they are in the Hall of Fame, too. Canani also has won the Breeders' Cup Mile twice, with Silic in 1999 and Val Royal in 2001.

He is also one of the last of the genuine racetrack characters. Canani is 66, looks 10 years younger, acts 30 years younger, and has a wife nearly 40 years younger. He wears shorts every day at Del Mar, puts on a giant Russian-style fur hat on cool mornings in the winter at Santa Anita, gets so nervous and animated when his horses run that he won't watch races with his owners, and is genuinely, oftentimes unintentionally, laugh-out-loud funny.

"What can I say? I am who I am. I love life, okay?" Canani said the other morning at his Del Mar barn. "I like to wear shorts. If you see me in a suit and tie, like some stiff over there, you'd say, 'This is not Julio Canani.' There is only one Julio Canani."

That uniqueness, Canani believes, is part of what helped him get both Blackdoun and Amorama, the winner of the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks. Both were sent to Canani by the great French trainer Maurice Zilber.

"Fifteen years ago I started buying 'cucarachas' from over there," said Canani, using a pet term that he uses to mean horses who can run. "I would always say hi to Maurice. I don't think he even understood my English. But I think he liked my personality. They like me there. I don't like too many people, but they like me. After he ran Amorama in the Miesque last year, he left her with me. And he bought Blackdoun after his last race in France, then sent him to me for the Del Mar meeting."

Both Amorama and Blackdoun are owned in part by Marsha Naify, who lives in nearby Rancho Santa Fe. Canani's other major clients include Marty and Pam Wygod, for whom Canani trains Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante winner Sweet Catomine, and the Preston brothers, for whom Canani trains Special Ring and Bayamo, the one-two finishers in the Eddie Read.

Canani is both a talented horseman and a terrific handicapper. His handicapping skills were among the reasons Sweet Catomine ran in the Debutante, despite having lost her only previous start.

"She was going to run on closing day in a maiden race, but when I saw the past performances of the horses who were going to run, we decided to take a chance," Canani said. "There were four or five speeds in the race. Some of the best horses dropped out. My filly's by Storm Cat. Even if she ran second or third, she would have been Grade 1-placed. With her pedigree, we decided to go for it."

Canani's horsemanship was best displayed by the comeback victory of Special Ring in the Read. Special Ring had won the Read the previous summer, but in this year's race he was making his first start in nine months.

"If I lose a horse like him, I have nothing to replace them with," Canani said. "When the tank is empty, you have to fill it back up. You can afford to be aggressive when you have another 10 just like him. He's been a recycle project. He has tons of ability. But he has no mind. I just needed patience. Sometimes you let common sense figure it out."

Much of that seat-of-the-pants style was gleaned from Frankel, whom Canani idolizes and refers to as "Presidente." A decade ago, when domestic issues forced Canani to give up his stable for a time, he worked as a New York-based assistant for Frankel. That was the beachhead that eventually led to Frankel being based in New York from May to October.

"We became friends 20 years ago. Ten years ago, we were 1 and 1A," Canani said. "He's different. I'm different, too. We're like two aliens from different galaxies. Everybody thinks he's tough, but he has the heart of a puppy. I'd be in New York, and he'd call me at 9 o'clock at night California time." Canani now feigns Frankel's high-pitched voice. " 'Can you believe the Dodgers are losing?' I'd say, It's midnight here, you [expletive]."

Canani first came to this country from his native Peru in 1963. His first jobs included walking hots for trainer Tommy Doyle, and grooming horses for trainer Hurst Philpott. He took out his license in 1968, but to make ends meet in the late 1970's and early 1980's, Canani sold carrots on the backside.

He has two children from his first marriage, including trainer Nick Canani, and two young children - Isabella, 5, and Alex, 27 months - from a second marriage to his current wife, Svetlana, 28. They, and the horses, are the center of his universe.

"I can't throw in the towel. I'm not through yet," Canani said. "If you don't work hard, some young guy will have what you've got. Even if you don't have anything, they want it."

But he must be satisfied with the way this summer has gone, right?

"Listen to me," he said. "If I get up in the morning, and I can go brush my teeth, I'm in business."