Updated on 09/17/2011 11:15AM

Pedersen earns Grade 1 spotlight

Jennifer Stevens/CDI
Jennifer Pedersen and jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. after New York Hero's win in the Lane's End Stakes.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - When Jennifer Pedersen brought Griffinite to the 2001 Preakness she was in the same barn with the likes of trainers Bob Baffert, Nick Zito, and John Ward.

For a woman who was 14 years removed from her only previous training experience and who had just two months earlier taken over the training duties for Ernie Paragallo's Paraneck Stable, it was an intimidating experience.

Saturday, when Pedersen saddles Paraneck's New York Hero in the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial, she will be in the same Aqueduct paddock with Baffert, Bobby Frankel, and Todd Pletcher.

Intimidating? Hardly.

"Back then, it was 'What am I doing over here?'" said Pedersen, who saddled Griffinite to a fifth-place finish in the 2001 Preakness. "Now, it's like 'Move over boys.' "

A lot has changed for Pedersen since May 2001, including her name. Back then, she was known as Jennifer Leigh-Pedersen, Leigh being a made up name from Pedersen's rebellious youth when she wanted to disassociate herself from her parents, Ali and Jerry Grandenetti.

Pedersen, 40, has since dropped the Leigh, and uses the surname of her late ex-husband, Lance, the father of her two children, Teal, 11, and Cody, 6. She also embraces her parents, especially her mother, who cares for Teal and Cody in upstate New York while Pedersen tends to business downstate.

Perhaps the most pertinent change in Pedersen is confidence. After constantly being told by outsiders she couldn't handle the rigors of training a large stable, she is not only handling it, she's thriving in her current role.

Through Tuesday, Pedersen ranked 16th in the nation in earnings with $1,014,782, and has 16 wins from 132 starters. Last month, Pedersen scored her biggest career victory when New York Hero upset the $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park.

"She's as good a horse person as there is out there, I don't care if they're named Baffert, Frankel, or anybody,' said Paragallo, who has owned champion sprinter Artax (1999) and previous Wood winners Unbridled's Song (1996) and Adonis (1999). "She'll hold her own with all of them. She's got a better feel than they do; she's been on the horses' backs. Some of these horses, she's been there since they were born.'

Pedersen, 40, has worked for Paragallo since 1998, when she took a job at Paragallo's Centerbrook Farm in Climax, N.Y., foaling and breaking horses. But her experience in racing dates back to 1978 when she used to ride her bike from Forest Hills to the Aqueduct stablegate, hoping for someone to give her a job.

Bobby Lake hired Pedersen as a hotwalker. From there, Pedersen bounced around, galloping horses and working the shed for trainers LeRoy Jolley, John and Jan Nerud, Gasper Moschera, and Peter Ferriola.

In 1987, Pedersen trained horses for Paul Cornman, and according to statistics in the American Racing Manual, Pedersen had a record of 4-7-4 from 48 starters and purse earnings of $115,495.

Burnt out and craving "a normal life' Pedersen left the track in 1988, got her GED and went to Ulster Community College to study nursing. She switched gears to study law, but always maintained an association with racing, galloping horses on nearby farms.

Pedersen was recommended to Paragallo by trainer Joe Aquilino and she was hired to break horses and manage Paragallo's farm. In the spring of 2001, Pedersen was promoted to trainer after Paragallo fired Richie Suttle.

It was to be a temporary situation as Paragallo eventually hired Richard Lundy as his private trainer. When that didn't work out after seven months, Pedersen was back in the barn.

Paragallo, who was the leading owner at the inner-track meet, said Pedersen's strength is her ability to communicate with her horses.

"She has a special knack with the horses, they respond to her,' Paragallo said. "When she comes in in the morning they start yelling for her. She treats them like babies, but she trains them like athletes.'

Aside from being away from her two children most of the week - she prefers to keep them upstate - Pedersen enjoys her current situation.

"I'm torn, but I'm driven, extremely driven,' Pedersen said.

The chance to become the 11th woman to saddle a horse in the Kentucky Derby also drives Pedersen. But, she said New York Hero needs to show more Saturday to earn a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

"I do dream about it, but I want what's right for this horse,' Pedersen said. "I don't want to put a horse in that predicament just for my satisfaction. I'm very realistic. I admire my animals and I don't think - and Ernie's smart enough - that we wouldn't put a horse in that situation.'

For as Pedersen knows, the Triple Crown experience can be quite intimidating.