07/29/2002 12:00AM

Neilson learned craft from a master


Talk about a no-lose situation.

Trainer Sanna Neilson was in an enviable position at the Eclipse Awards ceremony in Miami last February. She was the trainer of all three finalists - Lord Zada, Pompeyo, and Praise the Prince - for top steeplechase horse of 2001.

There weren't any anxious moments that night for Neilson, who said the ultimate winner, Pompeyo, was the most deserving horse. But it was an emotional time because Pompeyo, a multiple stakes winner, was euthanized a month before the Eclipse ceremony over complications from a leg injury.

Neilson said it was a phenomenal feeling to have had Pompeyo, Praise the Prince, and Lord Zada, who were all owned by her stepfather, George Strawbridge Jr., in her barn at the same time. "Pompeyo was just awesome," Neilson said. "If he were still around, I think he would rewrite the [history] books."

Neilson and her former boss, the Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard, are usually forces at Saratoga's six-week meet, which features nine jump races, including the $75,000 A. P. Smithwick Memorial on Aug. 8 and the $100,000 New York Turf Writers, a Grade 1, on Aug. 29.

She won 21 races last year and led steeplechase trainers in earnings with $771,031 but prefers to give her horses the credit, rather than accept praise for her own abilities. "This is all about the horses," Nielson said. "If you're lucky enough to get your hands on good horses and put them in decent spots . . ."

Neilson, 34, trains her horses on Strawbridge's farm in Cochranville, Pa., and has been one of the sport's most successful trainers since closing the door on a productive riding career in 1995. She rode five years, all as an amateur, and won several of jumping's most prestigious races, including the Colonial Cup, Iroquois, and Virginia Gold Cup. A nasty spill that left her with a broken pelvis, wrist, ribs, and collarbone made Neilson rethink her career. Upon her recovery, Neilson rode only a limited number of races before finally deciding to train horses.

"Breaking my pelvis was quite painful," said Neilson, who left Boston University, where she was studying journalism, after three years to devote herself to riding. "Riding wasn't that important after [the spill]. I couldn't have the same feeling for it."

When she was 14, Neilson began spending her summers and free time working for Sheppard, who is jump racing's career leading trainer and very capable with flat horses. Neilson said Sheppard provided her with many valuable lessons, including two in particular that she has incorporated into her own philosophy.

"Jonathan always said, 'Listen to your horses, and keep them happy,' " Neilson said. "The other thing is humility. He's an extremely humble guy for all the success he has had."

Neilson won six of the 21 jump races run at Saratoga during the last two meets and has brought five jumpers to Saratoga this year, including Lord Zada and Praise the Prince. She has three flat runners in her Saratoga barn, including Capital Peak, a 3-year-old maiden, who finished fourth on opening day.

Praise the Prince, a winner of three races at Saratoga, including last year's Smithwick, won't run during the meet because he is recovering from a minor injury. Lord Zada is also recovering from some physical problems, but Neilson said it's possible he could run in the New York Turf Writers.

Neilson's main action at the Spa will come from a couple of promising younger jumpers. El Guardaesplada, a 3 1/4-length winner of a hurdle race for maidens at Colonial Downs on June 29, will start Wednesday in a first-level allowance race over 2 1/16 miles. Jumangi, a winner of two starts over the jumps this year, is targeted for a second-level allowance race on Thursday and perhaps another start later in the meet in a race restricted to first-year jumpers.

"El Guardaesplada could develop into a nice horse," Neilson said. "Jumangi is a pretty solid horse. He's speedy, unlike most of my horses, who come from out of it. We haven't been able to change his mind about that yet. What I like about him is that when he turns for home, he doesn't give up."