06/09/2008 11:00PM

Trainer, horse aim to relaunch careers


MIAMI - The 2006 Preakness will forever be remembered as the race during which Barbaro suffered his ultimately fatal injury and Bernardini emerged as a future champion. Few will remember the horse who finished second that day, Sweetnorthernsaint - the same Sweetnorthernsaint who two weeks earlier had gone postward as the tepid favorite over Barbaro in the Kentucky Derby.

Although he went on to win a pair of stakes and place in a couple of Grade 3 races over the next two seasons, Sweetnorthernsaint's career never took off following his brief moment in the spotlight during the 2006 Triple Crown campaign. Now 5, Sweetnorthernsaint is ready to launch another comeback, this time in the relative anonymity of Calder Race Course, where he is in training with veteran horseman Leo Azpurua Jr.

Azpurua, 47, recently returned to training full time following a five-year hiatus from the sport to pursue a real-estate career. Azpurua has eight horses bedded down at Calder, including Sweetnorthernsaint and the graded-stakes-winning sprinter Weigelia, while awaiting the arrival of four more 2-year-olds from the farm.

Azpurua's uncle Eduardo Azpurua bred Sweetnorthernsaint and sold him privately to owners Joseph Balsamo and Ted Theos. Azpurua's father, Leo Sr., originally trained the horse before turning him over to Michael Trombetta, who campaigned Sweetnorthernsaint from his 3-year-old season through his ninth-place finish in the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita on Feb. 9.

"I got the horse in early March," said Azpurua, who trained Sweetnorthersaint's sire, Sweetsouthernsaint. "I had trained horses for Mr. Balsamo and Mr. Theos for six or seven years before stepping out of the business. When they learned I was coming back, they gave me the opportunity to take Swewetnorthernsaint and Weigelia, although they still have horses with Mike [Trombetta]."

Sweetnorthernsaint has had two works since joining Azpurua's stable, the most recent an easy five-furlong drill in 1:03.40 here Saturday.

"He's doing very well," Azpurua said. "The owners told me to take as much time as I needed, and I've been in no rush with him. I was hoping to perhaps have him ready to run in a turf stakes here on July 4, but I don't think we'll make that race. It's at a mile and one-eighth, and I think it would be a little too quick to bring him back at that distance. I think I'll look for something at seven-eighths or a mile to start out.

"My mission is to hopefully be able to bring him back to the same level he was at when at his best in the past."

Weigelia has already started twice for Azpurua, finishing far back in both the Turf Sprint Handicap and Champali Stakes earlier in the meet. Azpurua is confident Weigelia will turn in an improved performance when he returns Saturday in the $100,000 Ponche Handicap.

"I'm throwing his last race out completely," Azpurua said. "The heat was oppressive that day, and the air quality was poor because of the smoke from the fires in the Everglades. I'm going to add blinkers for this start. He used to run in blinkers for my uncle when he had him early in his career."

Weigelia has always been fond of the local strip, having posted 8 of his 13 victories at Calder, including an easy 3 1/2-length triumph in the 2007 Ponche and his most important win, the Grade 3 Carry Back at 3.

As for Azpurua, he's just eager to be back training horses full time once again.

"After doing this seven days a week for 20 years, I decided I needed a break a few years ago," Azpurua said. "But now I'm freshened up, excited to be back, and looking forward to doing a good job with these horses."

Ponche heads five-stakes card

The Ponche is the highlight of Saturday's Summit of Speed preview card, which includes five stakes, four of which serve as preps for the rich Summit of Speed program here July 12. The six-furlong Ponche lured all of the top sprinters on the grounds; along with Weigelia, it includes 124-pound highweight Blue Pepsi Lodge, Finallymadeit, Paradise Dancer, and Yesbyjimminy.

Paradise Dancer, who won the Grade 3 Kenny Noe Jr. Handicap here last season, had his final tuneup Monday when breezing four furlongs in 47.20 seconds and galloping out five-eighths in 1:01.20 for trainer Kirk Ziadie. Rockerfeller, a six-length allowance winner in his local debut May 25, also worked Monday for the Ponche, drilling a half-mile in 48.40.

Henry enjoys three-win day

Wesley Henry Sr., who will be aboard likely favorite Blue Pepsi Lodge in the Ponche, had his best day locally this spring when he posted a hat trick on Sunday's card. Henry's victories came aboard Sauden Maid, Gaston, and Storm Raider and gave him a dozen wins for the session, placing him in a dead heat for 10th place in the standings for the current session.

Henry guided Blue Pepsi Lodge to an easy 5 1/2-length victory in the Champali Stakes on May 17.