04/14/2004 12:00AM

Candidate for hometown hero


BOWIE, Md. - You remember last Saturday - the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, and Arkansas Derby, all designed to calm the 3-year-old rumble.

On the same day as those public displays, Water Cannon, a gray gelding who will someday grow into his head and legs, worked an easy half-mile in 47.40 seconds at Bowie Racecourse. While the first-team 3-year-olds eyed the Kentucky Derby, Water Cannon prepared for the Federico Tesio on Saturday at Pimlico.

Around Maryland, the $100,000 Tesio is a Preakness catapult. The local horse who runs well can realistically think about the second leg of the Triple Crown.

After Water Cannon's breeze, rider Bobby Delgado told trainer Linda Albert exactly what she worries about. "He was looking for competition," Delgado said as he hung Water Cannon's bridle on a tack hook in the open-air shed row of Barn 18.

"Well, he'll get that," Albert said with amusement and trepidation.

Water Cannon soars into the Tesio off four straight victories. One more and he'll be in the Preakness.


Let's get a few things straight - Linda Albert is not Nancy Alberts, who produced Magic Weisner (right out of the Tesio) for an epic performance in the Preakness two years ago. And Water Cannon is not a blueblood from a racing corporation.

No, this is Triple Crown on a budget.

Bowie used to serve as a viable spot on Maryland racing's calendar. Now, it serves as a training center. It's not pretty.

The grandstand was torn down a few months ago. Remnants of the winner's circle crumble on contact. Saplings grow wherever they decide. Abandoned cars litter the backside. One old man sits in the kitchen and drinks coffee while racing's working-class heroes go about their business.

Water Cannon's business is booming at the moment. He's the local horse, with the local connections, going the local route: maiden, allowance, Miracle Wood, Private Terms, Federico Tesio - Preakness.

It's been done before. Maryland-bred Deputed Testamony won the 1983 Preakness for the Boniface family. The Bonifaces nearly did it again with unheralded Oliver's Twist in 1995. Nancy Alberts's Cinderella act two years ago is still fresh.

Now it's Linda Albert's turn.

Bob Baffert has more matching colors in his overnight bag than Linda Albert has in her whole shed row. No two feed tubs match, and horses gallop in old Maryland Million saddle towels. Around here, trainers buy another bag of oats instead of a brass nameplate for a halter.

"A lot of days you're wondering what you're doing out here," Albert said. "A couple of times, I've thought, 'Maybe I need to go do something else.' I've thought very much about getting out."

Albert, 44, has trained for nearly 15 years after a short career as a jockey. Most years she makes money. One year, she lost money. She had 42 horses once; now she has 10.

Part of Bowie's decline and Albert's scuffle comes from the slots fiasco that has doomed Maryland racing. Bordering states - emboldened by falling coins that enrich purses - consistently pull horses out of Maryland.

Last Saturday's morning headline in The Baltimore Sun said it all - "Slots bill 'extremely dead.' "

In this business, though, there is no time to dwell on politics or atmosphere. Horses need to be trained. Albert jumped in and walked a hot one while her shorthanded crew tried to keep pace.

"Some years, grooming horses would pay me better," Albert said. "It gets especially depressing when all your horses are going bad. You know this business - it all goes good or it all goes bad. It never seems be down the middle. But it's funny, everything does seem more rosy than it did."

That's because of a gawky but talented son of Waquoit. Hoping for a solid Maryland Million horse, Ellen Fredel, managing partner for Nonsequitur Stable, spent $37,000 on Water Cannon at Timonium's 2-year-old sale last May.

"I'm excited because I don't know how good he is," Albert said. "We haven't had horses at this level. I'm sure Bob Baffert would look at him and make a judgment, but I haven't been around horses that go to these races, so how would I know?"

Albert has won Maryland Million stakes, and her stable was strong enough to bang out 33 winners last year. All while the facilities crumble around her.

"I came in the morning after they tore down the grandstand," Albert said. "The Bowie sign fell exactly as it had sat on top for so many years. It was kind of sad, like an old friend. This is the only place I've ever trained."

As for Water Cannon, he doesn't seem to mind. He's the one with the winter coat still matted around his head (it will be gone by Preakness day); the one who lies down and naps in the receiving barn on race day; the one staring across the parking lot - maybe looking for that competition.

"The horse was bred right here and never left here, but I don't feel like I'm carrying a torch or anything," Albert said. "He's an awful nice colt, the best one in Maryland right now. The Tesio is exciting. The Preakness, we haven't got to it, so it doesn't seem to faze us - yet."