09/09/2003 11:00PM

Manning's patient style paying off

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OCEANPORT, N.J. - Dennis Manning always believed he was destined for success as a horse trainer, even when his first runner, a 13-year-old warrior, ran at the Marshfield Fair for the paltry purse of $600.

"It was $360 for the winner," Manning said.

Later, when he emerged as a leading trainer in New England, Manning yearned for more.

"I was winning stakes races and making money up there, but I always knew there was more out there," Manning said.

Manning, at 55, has discovered how lucrative the sport can be. He has been on a stakes roll over the past month, winning his first Grade 1 stakes with Valid Video in the King's Bishop at Saratoga and the $750,000 Pennsylvania Derby with the unbeaten Grand Hombre.

Wednesday morning, the Monmouth Park rumor mill was churning with reports that Grand Hombre, who had been racing for Earle Mack, had been sold.

Confirmation came later in the day with the release of the late nominations for the Super Derby, to be run Sept. 20 at Louisiana Downs. Grand Hombre was on the list, with Darley Stud as the owner and Tom Albertrani as the trainer.

The careful preparation and development by Manning had paid off handsomely.

"It's really important to me to have the respect of my peers," Manning said. "That I can develop a horse and win the races is far more important to me than the financial gain."

New England has produced many top horsemen over the years, but economic opportunities are limited in that region. Several of the trainers, including Manning, Bill Perry, Bob Klesaris, and Tim Hills, relocated to New Jersey.

Manning arrived in the late 1980's and developed a reputation as a trainer who could take modestly bred babies and turn them into productive and profitable racehorses.

"I enjoy trying to develop a horse," Manning said. "I haven't been able to go to Nordstrom to buy horses. I've had to go to the flea market."

Manning also arrived in New Jersey with a reputation as a crusty customer. Manning's plain talk contrasts sharply with the smoothly corporate style of many top-echelon trainers.

"I'm a very funny person," Manning said. "I won't train for anybody unless they let me do what I need to do to develop a horse. If they put pressure on me to run a horse when I don't think they should run or they put pressure on me to keep a young horse in training that I think needs to get another year to develop, I don't care what they're paying me. I'm not training for them."

That attitude has cost Manning clients over the years. It also has contributed substantially to his current success, as he developed Grand Hombre and Valid Video at his own pace. He has been fortunate to have such clients as Mac Fehsenfeld (Valid Video) and Mack buy into the program.

"For me to take those two horses, teach them as babies, and bring them to the races and develop them the way they are is really important to me," Manning said. "It shows I can develop a horse. I'm very fortunate to have Mr. Mack and Mr. Fehsenfeld, who are very patient and give me all the time there is to give to develop a horse."

Manning has produced results, polishing the rough edges on a pair of modestly priced horses. Valid Video cost $29,000 as a yearling. Grand Hombre was a buyback when he failed to bring a bid of $40,000.

"We're going to buy young horses on short dollars," Manning said. "I don't have the dollars to buy pedigree horses. You're going to get some horses who are good horses. Some just can't make it."

Like many trainers, Manning got his start with claimers. That's a part of the game he has left behind.

"I never claim horses," Manning said. "I'm not going to play that game.

"You claim a horse. You've got to inject his ankles, inject his knees. Somebody else has already done that, and for what? Raise him up one level or drop him down two to say you won a race? That's not my game. If I have to do it, I quit."

Manning prefers the longer-term project of breaking the babies and schooling them in the lessons of the racetrack.

"We have a real good breaking program," Manning said. "We make them riding horses before we make them racehorses. They do figure eights and go around hay bales. They learn all that stuff, and then I take them to the track."

Operating at the Classic Mile Park training center in Ocala, Fla., Manning spends the winter preparing the youngsters. He will run a few at Gulfstream Park, but most race later in the year under the watchful eye of a patient trainer.

"I try to develop them as best I can," Manning said. "It takes a special kind of client to let you do that."