02/26/2009 12:00AM

Out for more than laughs

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Benoit & Associates
Julio Canani, with three Breeders' Cup winners and a juvenile filly champion to his credit, has yet to start a horse in the Kentucky Derby. The Pamplemousse could change that this year.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Julio Canani arrived in this country from his native Peru in 1963 with just a few hundred dollars to his name, worked as a groom and a hotwalker, and then, to make ends meet during his initial, lean years as a trainer, sold carrots in the stable area, did calls and results for Spanish-language radio stations, and gambled, quite successfully, on horses.

That scratching and clawing paid off, for Canani, long respected as one of the sharpest trainers in Southern California, has won three Breeders' Cup races and seen the quality of the horses passing through his shed row rise exponentially.

Of all the things he has done, including travel to Russia and Dubai, he has never run a horse in the Kentucky Derby. The closest he's gotten, he likes to joke, "is Kentucky Fried Chicken." That's because Canani, 70, has had precious few chances with young, quality horses he has trained from the beginning of their careers. This year, though, he has an outstanding chance to get to the Derby with San Rafael Stakes winner The Pamplemousse, who was among 12 horses entered on Wednesday in the Grade 3, $200,000 Sham Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

"He's so big," Canani said. "He's still growing, that horse."

It's enough to give a trainer Derby fever, and though Canani has been far more animated than usual in recent weeks, he swears he doesn't have it.

He has been, however, a nervous wreck. He won't admit to it, but it shows. His gesticulations are more wild, he is making more frequent visits to the press box, he is babbling even more incoherently than usual in the mornings. It's quite entertaining stuff, and Canani is the first person to laugh at himself. He'll wear Mardi Gras beads, put on a furry Russian hat better fit for Siberia. He is one of the last of a dying breed, the true racetrack character.

"You've got to laugh," Canani said. "If you don't laugh, you're dead."

"It would be a lot of fun to have him on the Derby trail," said his friend, trainer Bob Baffert. "He's quite entertaining."

Baffert has named Canani "Kramer," after the wacky neighbor on the TV show "Seinfeld."

"The way he walks around, saying things you can't understand while shaking his head and waving his arms, it's Kramer," Baffert said. "But, you know, he's a great horseman."

Indeed, Canani can win with anything. He was a demon when he claimed horses, and had several of his runners, like Ladies Din and Silver Circus, develop into top-class stakes horses after beginning as maiden claimers. He has had an uncanny knack with Europeans, such as Silic and Val Royal, his Breeders' Cup Mile winners. When he gets a young horse from the start, he produces - witness Sweet Catomine, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2004. And he has won the biggest race at Santa Anita, the Santa Anita Handicap, with the longshot Martial Law 20 years ago.

For all that, Canani is more commonly referred to as "Genius," a nickname he answers to.

When it comes to nicknames, Canani has come up with some beauties, a few of which are even printable. He calls Bobby Frankel "El Presidente," though for a few years about a decade ago, Canani called him "Kevorkian."

"The first good horse I was grooming for Hurst Philpott, he claimed him," Canani said. "I got mad at him. I let him have it."

They have been good friends for more than 30 years, even through a summer at Del Mar when Canani was on Frankel mercilessly.

"A lot of his horses were getting hurt. Those days, Dr. Kevorkian was in the news. So I called him Kevorkian," Canani said. "But he's still El Presidente."

One summer at Del Mar about 25 years ago, Canani had a huge bet on a claimer he trained, Sea Ride. The horse opened a big lead at the top of the stretch under Marco Castaneda, but was caught late. "Marco, you destroy me," cried Canani, who bestowed Castaneda with the moniker "Hillside Strangler."

Canani will root for jockey Corey Nakatani by calling him an unprintable pejorative, all while snapping his fingers maniacally.

Canani used to spend far more time in the press box, because he worked there. His gambling escapades there are legendary, as well as his mangling of English. Seeking to ascertain the name of a horse who was leading a race in which he had wagered, Canani blurted out, "What number the 2?"

For several years about 30 years ago, Canani called races for a Spanish-language station. One day, his call was punctuated by Canani futilely imploring the jockey riding the horse he had bet to avoid a blind switch.

"Don't go in there, don't go in there," he yelled in the middle of his call.

Jimmy Kilroe, then Santa Anita's director of racing, happened to be nearby.

"Julio, don't bet on horses when you call a race," Kilroe advised.

Canani was a regular at Friday night roundtable handicapping discussions held in the lunch room that is adjacent to the Santa Anita press box. They were led by Jeff Siegel, then a syndicated handicapper, and were known as "Siegel Seminars."

"The press box was fun," Canani said. "Now" - because of cutbacks in local papers - "it's a funeral parlor."

The dour mood doesn't last long, though, wherever Canani goes, whether it's the press box or Clocker's Corner.

"You have to laugh every morning," he said.

In other Derby developments:

* The Pamplemousse drew post 5 in the 1 1/8-mile Sham. The rest of the field, from the rail out, is Hi Flyin Indy, Smart Bid, Tiz True, Lifeline, Balfour Park, Mr. Hot Stuff, Bourbon Bay, Ventana, Mark S the Cooler, Unbridled Roman, and Take the Points.

* Take the Points also was entered on Wednesday in the Grade 2, $250,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes, to be run at its new distance of a one-turn mile on Saturday at Gulfstream Park. There are four members of the Derby Watch top 20 in that race - Beethoven, Capt. Candyman Can, Notonthesamepage, and This Ones for Phil.

* The other two stakes for 3-year-olds on Saturday, the $100,000 Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park and the $100,000 Borderland Derby at Sunland Park, are both ungraded, which makes them unappealing for horses who need graded stakes money to get into the Derby.

* John Velazquez will ride Flying Pegasus in the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on March 14, trainer Ralph Nicks said Wednesday. Robby Albarado rode Flying Pegasus to a second-place finish in the Risen Star Stakes earlier this month, but Albarado will ride Patena for trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. in the Louisiana Derby.

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WHO'S HOT

The dazzling allowance win by Dunkirk last week at Gulfstream Park vaulted him right onto the top 20 of Derby Watch, landing him as the co-fourth choice at 12-1 on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper.

WHO'S NOT

To make room for Dunkirk, the Sam Davis Stakes winner, General Quarters, who was ranked 20th a week ago, had to be dropped. Dunkirk's low odds forced Watchmaker to raise the price on two other horses. This Ones for Phil is now 30-1 after being 20-1 a week ago, and I Want Revenge floated up to 40-1 after being 30-1 last week.

ON THE BUBBLE

There should be plenty of movement on the list following the Derby preps this weekend, which include the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. Take the Points could move onto the list if he can upset The Pamplemousse in the Sham, while Break Water Edison will be looking to regain his once-lofty status when he competes in the Fountain of Youth

- Jay Privman