02/16/2009 12:00AM

Trainer profile: Mike Puype


ARCADIA, Calif. - Mike Puype figured he had two options when California eliminated dirt tracks and went all-synthetic - either change his style of training, or surrender.

"Because the tracks changed, I needed to change. I had to adjust," Puype said. He sure did, because early 2008 was a fiasco.

"I had a very bad first half of the year," he said, referring to an 8-for-130 mark from January through July. "I took a long, hard look at everything I was doing, the different things I was doing, and said, no more."

Puype, 42, split his stable instead of keeping his entire 44-horse string at Hollywood Park. He shipped horses earlier to the track on which they would run, which allowed them to train on synthetic surfaces at Del Mar and Santa Anita before they ran.

"I said it's going to kill me to be in two spots," he said. "But I've got to put myself to it. I couldn't could just ship over on race day and think everything is going to be perfect."

The second half of 2008 produced results Puype expected. One of the hardest-working trainers on the circuit, Puype went on a roll and won 20 races from his final 92 starters of the year, and won a career-high $1,144,376 in purses.

The roll has continued this winter. Despite a recent rash of second- and third-place finishes, Puype was 7 for 46 at Santa Anita through Feb. 15. Five winners were second-start maidens.

"Since we've been synthetic, a lot of these horses take a race or two to get going," Puype said. "As a gambler, you should be very conservative if you bet first-timers on synthetic tracks. No matter how good the workouts are, they just don't win like they used to. It's not like dirt."

Puype maidens almost always improve second time out.

"I used to work my horses a lot harder and faster," he said, "and I've slowed down because . . . I've learned to be a little more conservative. They get quite a bit out of a race first time out. You're not going over to give them one - it's just the way it comes up.

"When synthetic tracks came, I changed the way I trained. If you train hard, you're not going to stay as sound. You try to slow the works down a little bit, and try to get them to gallop out a little more. Just ease back a little bit."

Puype expects 2009 to be better. South American imports Surfer Girl and El Merito will make their U.S. debut in coming months, and Puype has high hopes for maidens Bridging and Valkryie Missile, who he predicts "will double his form when he goes two turns."

Training a good horse is nothing new for Puype, who won Grade 2's with Old Trieste, Grade 3's with Cobra King, and the Grade 1 Malibu with Lord Grillo. His best horse was Star of Goshen, who happens to be the dam of Kentucky Derby contender Pioneerof the Nile, who is trained by Bob Baffert.

"Unequivocally, that filly is by far the most talented horse I've ever trained," Puype said. "She was brilliant. Old Trieste did more and won bigger races, but she was better." Star of Goshen won her first three starts by an average margin of nine lengths, but she pulled a muscle in her back and was retired after five starts.

As for Pioneerof the Nile, Puype said, "I've been following him from the beginning. He has Derby written all over him. Most horses just don't look brilliant on this track (Pro-Ride), and he looked brilliant" in a Feb. 7 victory.

Like many astute handicappers, Puype has yet to master the nuances of Pro-Ride.

"I had horses that I thought absolutely couldn't lose this meet, and they got beat. I had horses I wasn't sure about, and they ran great. Sometimes it confuses me as a handicapper and a trainer.

"You have to handicap differently, if you haven't, you're dead. The gambler is definitely taking the shorter end of this whole process."