10/23/2006 11:00PM

Petalino's big win: Staying alive

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OKLAHOMA CITY - From developing and selling Great Hunter, who is a leading contender for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile, to pulling a Remington Park stakes double last Friday night that included Mr. Pursuit's win in the $263,000 Oklahoma Derby, it has been a strong year for trainer Joe Petalino.

And while Petalino is poised to surpass $1 million in stable earnings for the year for the first time since 2000, the ride has not been all smooth sailing. Petalino did not know it, but he has been a ticking time-bomb for most of the year, suffering from heart disease. He had been feeling a numbness in his arms and hands for months, and one morning at Remington three weeks ago the situation came to a head.

"I got to sweating quite a bit, and it wasn't really that hot, I guess," said Petalino, 58. "I went to the doctors and they took a stress test and did blood, and I passed all that, and I could have gone home. I was laying on a stretcher in the emergency room and talking to the doctor, and he said from everything that you told me it's a textbook heart attack, but nothing showed."

Doctors ran one more test on Petalino, using a dye solution that can help reveal blockages in arteries. The tests showed he had a "widowmaker lesion," or severe blockage in his left main artery, the major blood vessel to his heart. There was a 70 percent blockage, a recipe for sudden cardiac death.

"The heart wasn't getting anything right in the aorta," said Petalino. "That's why I was out of air. That's why my arms were hurting. The doctor said if I'd have gone home [after the first two tests], he said, 'You would have went to sleep and you would have never woke up, or you would have had such a massive heart attack that you wouldn't have gotten back to the hospital.'"

Two days after the dye test, on Oct.4, Petalino underwent triple bypass heart surgery. The surgery corrected the "widowmaker lesion," with veins from Petalino's right leg and chest used to create "bypasses" to support his left main artery. Petalino said he has no heart muscle damage, because he did not have a heart attack.

"I feel good," he said at his barn the morning after the Oklahoma Derby. "I've gotten stronger every day. Every day is a little better. Every day I sleep a little better."

Petalino had good color and good energy last Friday night, as he accompanied all of his starters in the paddock at Remington. In addition to Mr. Pursuit, he sent out Lineofbull to pull a $69 upset in the $75,000 Remington Park Sprint Championship. The wins were two of 34 this year for Petalino, who to date has 2006 stable earnings of $990,571.

Petalino, a former assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg who worked closely with 1988 Horse of the Year Alysheba, said earlier this season that his 2-year-old crop was one of his strongest in years. They have performed to expectations, winning 14 of 72 starts and $395,305. Among his 2-year-old stakes winners this year are Hadacure and Duh Nutts, while the promising Slapout is being pointed for the $150,000 Jean Lafitte at Delta Downs on Nov. 3.

As for Great Hunter, he won his maiden at Lone Star Park in June for Petalino and then-owner Illona Whetstone of Kentucky. The plan was to take Great Hunter to the Grade 3 Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs, then point for the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, which he won on Oct. 7. But before such plans could be put in motion, Great Hunter was sold for an undisclosed sum to J. Paul Reddam and sent to trainer Doug O'Neill in California.

"The offer was too good," said Petalino. "It was too good for Mrs. Whetstone to pass up."

Whetstone also owns Mr. Pursuit, who had placed in a handful of stakes this year before breaking through with his first career stakes score in the Oklahoma Derby. It was a satisfying win, as the colt had grabbed a quarter at the start of the Grade 3 Lone Star Derby in May, then was found to have a lung infection after finishing fifth in the $100,000 Prelude at Louisiana Downs in September.

"It was just one little thing after another, just enough to keep him from, you know, seeing what he was really made of," said Petalino. "We always thought a lot of the horse."

Petalino said he is grateful for his year, his health, and a win in the richest race of the meet at Remington.

"It was very meaningful," he said. "It was pretty good after all that."