Updated on 09/15/2011 2:20PM

Make way for Canani


ELMONT, N.Y. - Racing in the Big Apple may not be ready for a personality like Julio Canani, who trains two starters in Saturday's Breeders' Cup races. At 62, Canani has a recipe for success that combines a sharp wit with an enthusiasm for racing and a dash of cynicism.

Horses who fail to impress are labeled "cucarachas," Spanish for cockroaches. Canani has distinctive taste in winter headgear. During the cool months at home in Southern California, he can be found traipsing to and from the barn area and racetrack wearing a white sheepskin hat that resembles something the old Soviet party officials used to don while standing on the balcony overseeing an army parade.

During a race, the trainer can be as entertaining as the event. He cannot sit still, and when his horses encounter trouble, Canani, who often watches from the press box, will instantly cry out "I'm dead" or utter a lengthy "Noooooooo" that would impress a Spanish soccer announcer. More often than not, it's a false alarm. The horses find a way through and win.

Through it all, Canani has plenty of time to get down to business, which has brought him to New York's Belmont Park to start Tranquility Lake in the $2 million Distaff and Val Royal in the $1 million Mile. Neither is expected to be favored, but both have outstanding chances.

"This is what I live for," Canani said earlier this week.

While Tranquility Lake has won 11 of 26 starts and more than $1.6 million, Val Royal has been a project. The 5-year-old Val Royal has kept Canani on the edge of his seat this year, overcoming injury to win the Grade 2 Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita on Oct. 7. The victory ended a rocky two-year road for Val Royal, during which he was plagued by a tendon injury and then by quarter cracks. For some trainers, there would not have been a comeback, but not all trainers have Canani's patience, or owners with deep pockets.

Owned by television producer David Milch ("Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue"), Val Royal is a French-bred son of 1990 Breeders' Cup Mile winner Royal Academy. He had a frustrating season last year after making a splashy U.S. debut in 1999, winning the Del Mar Derby. Val Royal joined the Canani stable at a time when Silic was en route to the 1999 Breeders' Cup Mile and Ladies Din was collecting stakes wins and placings in major turf stakes in California.

But by the time Silic won the Mile at Gulfstream Park that year, Val Royal was sidelined with a bowed tendon and faced a questionable future. "We stopped with the first sign of trouble with him right after the Del Mar Derby," said Milch. "A tendon injury is never good, but if you stop right away and give them more than a year, I've had a couple of horses come back from that. There was never a question about his quality."

Val Royal rejoined the Canani stable in late 2000 and was ready to resume racing by late winter. In his comeback, he finished second in the Grade 2 Frank Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita, losing by a length after a slow start.

"I've been saying a lot to people, even when he wasn't running, 'You have no idea how talented he is,' " Canani said. "We gave him 17 months before he ran again. The tendon is not a problem on the horse."

Just as Val Royal's career resumed, it was halted by quarter cracks. Wet weather and muddy tracks in Southern California did not help the problem.

Val Royal was off for seven months through the spring and summer, returning in the Oak Tree Mile on Oct. 7. This time, he was well-backed, going off at 3-1 in a seven-horse field. Canani had already produced one comeback, and bettors trusted him to pull off another.

Ridden by Jose Valdivia, Jr., who will have the mount on Saturday, Val Royal broke slowly, rallied wide, and won convincingly by two lengths.

"Sometimes things happen for the best," Canani said. "It was a blessing in disguise. He only ran with six works. He was doing everything so easily." Canani and Milch committed to the Breeders' Cup Mile a few days later.

"Julio always felt if we could get him right, he'd have every right to be in the Breeders' Cup," Milch said. "I'm gratified but not surprised. I paid enough money to not be surprised he's running in the Breeders' Cup. He was an expensive horse."

The comeback has been so thorough that Canani admits to being caught off guard that Val Royal has earned a trip to the World Thoroughbred Championships. "I thought maybe he'd make it next year," he said. "He's got so much ability. He shouldn't have won the Del Mar Derby. He stopped, got himself together and in two jumps won the race.

"This horse is tougher to train than Silic. Silic was a puppy dog. This horse has a mind of his own. He's a tough cookie to train. He wants to go after anything he sees. Silic was a laid-back horse, sleeping all the time." Last week at Santa Anita, Val Royal scared Canani when he unseated his exercise rider after a gallop and ran from the racetrack into the stable area. Canani watched the entire episode from a patio adjacent to the racetrack.

"I yelled and I think my tonsils came out," Canani said. "I was worried that he'd run into something."

Neither horse nor rider was hurt. The trainer's vocal chords are intact.

"Julio is a very colorful personality," Milch said. "He as as savvy of a horsemen as he is colorful and that's important."