10/25/2007 11:00PM

Little guys find way to the big stage

EmailOCEANPORT, N.J. - The ESPN cameras sit strategically positioned like machine-gun nests all over Monmouth Park. They point down from the grandstand roof, take in every angle of the racing ovals below, and during the Breeders' Cup broadcast will spray shots of well-buffed minor-celebrity faces and million-dollar horseflesh, one after another.

This is not racing reality.

Most track life takes place in quiet corners, far from the camera's arc - anonymous, mundane toil, sometimes building toward something better, often going nowhere in particular.

Going into this weekend's races, Todd Pletcher has started 41 horses in Breeders' Cup races, Bob Baffert 44, Bill Mott 48, Bobby Frankel 68, and Wayne Lukas a whopping 146.

Still, each Breeders' Cup, horses arrive with no brand-name trainer attached. Most are never heard from again; others actually hit the mark: Ernie Poulos with Black Tie Affair (Classic, 1991), or Thad Ackel with Great Communicator (Turf, 1988). Here are five trainers with only one previous Breeders' Cup starter among them. But this year, for different reasons, they have made it to New Jersey - just like the big guys.

Doris Harwood

Smarty Deb, Juvenile Fillies

Home base: Emerald Downs, Auburn, Wash.

Doris Harwood refers to her training operation as "Team Pink." Pink is one of her colors; the other is a bright turquoise. The combo runs from bridles to saddle towels to curry combs and all the way to Harwood's glossy lipstick. But there is a practical side to this.

"You and your owners can see it all the way across the track," Harwood said.

Harwood, 55, bubbles, but her blue-gray eyes don't blink much.

"I'm a type-A personality," she said.

But her "Country gal in the big city" persona - the one that has occasioned 50 or so media interviews this week by Harwood's count - turns out to be a false front.

The daughter of a plumber and a stay-at-home mother of 6, Harwood had no family connection to racing. She started riding at 10. While waiting tables and attending Seattle Community College, she met a friend who had a horse at the old Longacres track. That was that.

There was a brief career as an actual jockey, and Harwood rode her share of Washington winners while harboring no delusions of grandeur.

"I wasn't bad, but I knew that wasn't what I was going to be doing for a long time," she said.

She worked as an assistant trainer, bought a small farm, and finally took out her own trainer's license. By Harwood's count, it took about five years to get fully established. In the meantime, she did most of the work herself.

"I sat down and figured it out once: I was making 14 cents an hour," she said.

But guess what? Harwood has 50 horses under her care now. Each year, she gets as many as 30 yearlings, breaking them at her farm and training them the next season. She has good owners, like Jerre Paxton's Northwest Farms. Paxton owns Smarty Deb, who has a big-time pedigree - Smart Strike out of a Wild Again mare - and has never lost a race, beating males in Emerald's big 2-year-old race, the Gottstein Futurity.

The pink thing? That's all part of the game.

"You're out there putting on a show," Harwood said.

Mark Hubley

Your Round, Juvenile Turf

Home base: Thoroughbred Training Center, Lexington, Ky.

The standings go like this: Steve Asmussen, 384 wins; Todd Pletcher, 245 wins; Mark Hubley, 132 wins. Those Asmussen and Pletcher totals encompass 2007, while Hubley's spans a career dating to 1980.

The Hubley training file is checkered. Go year by year, and you see him failing to win a race in 1980 and only earning a couple victories the next two seasons while trying to teach slow horses to win on the tough New York City circuit.

A move to Finger Lakes invigorated Hubley - both the country living, and the easier competition - and his win totals gradually increased. But the mid-1990s was a fade to black. Hubley went 0 for 5 in 1994, 0 for 3 in 1995, and 0 for 0 in 1996.

"I really got disenchanted with the horses, especially at Finger Lakes," Hubley said, reached by phone late Tuesday afternoon. "I had bad owners and bad horses."

Hubley grew up in Manhattan, yet another child who out of the blue grew an attachment to horses. Hubley's parents were animators; his father had worked for Disney in the 1930s and 40s before being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, Hubley said.

Hubley had an English degree, but when he left the track, he took graduate courses in special education and wound up working with kids who had severe emotional problems.

"Once I got into it, I liked it," Hubley said. "It could be very emotionally draining. There's one success story for every 30 sad stories."

Sounds like the horse trade - which is where Hubley, 56, ended up again in 2000. Some friends who had done well in business asked him to put together a stable. Year by year, things have improved; Your Round, who was a troubled third behind likely Juvenile Turf favorite Prussian in the Summer Stakes at Woodbine, looks like Hubley's best horse yet. Where the Breeders' Cup fits into everything, Hubley can't say.

"It'll be significant if we do well or do really poorly," he said. "I try to find some middle ground. I get really pissed off when the horses don't run to expectations, and I probably get way too high when they do well."

Cliff Sise

Idiot Proof, Sprint

Home base: Santa Anita, Arcadia, Calif.

Cliff Sise wears bulky beige sneakers. The nylon band of a stopwatch has dangled from the pocket of khaki trousers each morning this week at Monmouth. Sise has a restrained, pleasant way of speaking that makes you think he knows quite a bit more than he's saying. One gets the sense that Sise is fairly handy with that stopwatch.

Sise has started one horse in a Breeders' Cup race. That was Paying Dues, who was part of a two-horse mutuel field in the 1996 Sprint, and finished second by just more than a length at odds of 31-1. You might want to keep an eye on Idiot Proof in Saturday's BC Sprint - if he slows down enough for you to see him.

The last and only time Idiot Proof came to Monmouth, he set a six-furlong track record of 1:07.47 while winning the Jersey Shore BC Stakes by half the stretch. Stabled most of this year in California, and running on synthetic surfaces, Idiot Proof just may be a dirt-loving fool.

"He likes to hear his feet rattle," Sise said.

Sise, 56, got his first trainer's license 36 years ago. He grew up in the neighborhood of Santa Anita, his father was the vice president of a major freight company. No hardscrabble childhood there. Sise fell for horses early. A well-known California trainer named Jimmy Jordan was a family friend, and Sise made it onto the backstretch at age 11.

"Jimmy used to let me sneak over and walk hots during Christmas vacation," he said.

Sise was a jockey for 3 1/2 years, but said he really was too big to ride even when he got started. He began training, tired of it, quit, and ran a catering business. Not long after, the strange siren call of the track lured him back.

"It gets in your blood," Sise said.

Asked if he ever questioned his choice of professions, Sise quickly responded: "Like, every other day. You say to yourself, 'What am I in this business for?' It's seven days a week. It's hard to make money as a trainer."

But Sise isn't going anywhere. He has 37 horses now, and Idiot Proof, a California-bred, is the property of major owner Marty Wygod.

"Once you're in with Marty, you're in." Sise said.

If Sise has seemed cool and collected this week, it's because he is.

"If I was 1-5 in a race like this, I might be nervous," he said. "Now, it's another race."

John Glenney

Transduction Gold, Turf

Home base: Keeneland, Lexington, Ky.

The mortal lock of the weekend would be a bet that John Glenney is the only Breeders' Cup trainer with a Ph.D. in biochemistry.

Glenney's academic background includes post-doctorate work in Germany, a position at the Salk Laboratory in San Diego, and a professorship at the University of Kentucky. No accident that he landed there.

"I think we moved to Kentucky because I liked horses so much," Glenney said.

Glenney, 56, not only worked at UK, he started a business, Transduction Laboratories, which makes tools to be used in the study of signal transduction in cellular biology. Here's a little on-line sample from that field: "The movement of signals can be simple, like that associated with receptor molecules of the acetylcholine class."

Simple, indeed.

Compared with signal transduction, training racehorses should be a snap - but somehow the activity resists a strictly scientific approach.

"I have wanted to do a lot more analytical work with the horses, but the more horses I get, the more I get bogged down with the day-to-day," Glenney said. "Getting them all out, getting them trained, getting people to clean stalls. I thought I would have more time to design some experiments, come up with things."

Still, the sale of Transduction Laboratories to a larger company allowed Glenney to get out of academia, which had become somewhat constricting, and into breeding and training some 10 years ago. Glenney and his wife, Kim, have a farm, their own mares, and have done increasingly well in coming up with turf stakes horses. Transduction Gold, still just a 4-year-old, may turn out to be the best of them, having won the Grade 3 Sycamore last out at Keeneland.

Glenney not only trains but breaks his own horses now, and what he knows, he essentially taught himself. His turn of mind nevertheless resists playing up accomplishments.

"I think everyone in the horse business realizes it's the horse, and that there's a huge element of luck," he said. "I think the best I could say was I didn't screw them up."

Bob Ribaudo

Grand Couturier, Turf

Home base: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.

Bob Ribaudo has 14 horses in his Belmont barn. The stable is thriving.

"That's bigger than I usually have," Ribaudo said, with no sign of wistfulness in his voice.

If Grand Couturier, an English-bred French import owned by an old Ribaudo client Marc Keller, were to chug home first in the Breeders' Cup Turf, he would pick up a paycheck of $1,620,000 - which would be roughly one-fifth of all the purse money Ribaudo's horses have earned in 31 years of training.

Not that Ribaudo is knocking the overall experience. Born and raised in the working-class Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, Ribaudo started small as a trainer and has stayed small through three decades. He has managed to hang onto his business while operating on the uber-circuit of North American racing - New York.

"You knew you weren't going to crack the big time," Ribaudo said. "I was always comfortable with eight or 10 horses. I'm very hands on. I like to do the work myself."

There are a few well-worn paths to becoming a young trainer. Easiest of all is to be born into a racing family and carry on with the older generation's work and connections. Often, an ambitious exercise rider will move into an assistant trainer position and take off from there. Ribaudo was a groom. He spent five years grooming for the jockey-turned-trainer Bill Boland, finally moving into an assistant's position, and eventually setting up his own stable.

"No question, I enjoyed grooming," Ribaudo said. "Some of the fellas have the advantage of being riders. My forte was taking care of the horses. I still enjoy getting in there."

Ribaudo, 56, has managed to stay married 33 years and raise a daughter. Come vacation time, wife and daughter went off alone while father went to work at the track. A change of profession, in these cases, can sometimes seem only a week or two away when things are slow.

"No question, you always look at the alternatives when it falls off to where you have two or three horses," Ribaudo said. "But then you turn around and somebody else is knocking at the door, and you keep going."

A devotee of New York-breds and claimers, Ribaudo now has himself a long-distance European grass horse, and that's worked out. Grand Couturier gave the trainer his first Grade 1 win this summer at Saratoga, upsetting English Channel in the Sword Dancer. And his entry Saturday in the Turf presents a sea-change of Breeders' Cup scheduling for Ribaudo, who lives about 10 minutes from Belmont.

"Since the inception of the Breeders' Cup, I managed to watch the first couple races at home, catch one or two at the barn while I'm feeding, and then run home again and watch the last couple," he said.

The view will be quite different Saturday. And then it is back home - back to work.