03/01/2010 12:00AM

Trainer profile: Nick Canani


In the summer of 1998, Nick Canani stood in the winner's circle at Del Mar, celebrating his first Grade 1 race win with Sicy D'Alsace in the Del Mar Oaks. Horse racing seemed easy, he felt, and winning the Del Mar Oaks - well, that was probably just a sign of what was to come.

For a little while, in 1997 and 1998, when Canani won with nearly 30 percent of his starters, racing might have been easy. But a little more than a decade later, out of training and hustling mounts as a jockey agent last year at Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma, he was able to fully appreciate how wrong he was.

For a California native, the son of veteran trainer Julio Canani, booking mounts at a small track in rural Oklahoma wasn't where he felt was supposed to end up. Luckily for him, it wasn't.

A second chance appeared late last spring when he was offered the opportunity to return to training, handling a string of horses for Frank Calabrese, perennially the leading owner at Arlington Park, a couple months after Calabrese and his regular trainer, Wayne Catalano, parted ways.

For the past nine months, Canani has made the most of the opportunity. He won with 28 of 76 starters last year (36 percent) while sharing duties with Danny Miller as one of Calabrese's principal trainers, and through Feb. 28, he was 8 for 19 at the current Gulfstream Park meet, good for a 42 percent win mark.

"It's been a real roller-coaster," said Canani, 36, of his career.

Along the way, Canani bounced around from state to state as different jobs and opportunities came his way, including a one-year stint in 2003 when he trained 60 horses in Maryland for controversial owner Michael Gill.

He then tried to make it in Kentucky, and though he enjoyed living in the state, he gradually saw his stable diminish in strength and quality. So in fall 2008, he called training quits and became a jockey agent.

He said he "found out that it all comes to an end at some point, unless you keep working hard."

Now things are rosy for him again. "It's a great opportunity," he said of training for Calabrese. "I'm very, very grateful."

At a challenging meet such at Gulfstream Park, winning with 20 percent of starters is a challenge. So to be hitting at a rate more than twice that - which he currently is - is remarkable.

He credits Steve Leving, racing manager for Calabrese, who is "great at picking out spots," and of course, the boss himself, Calabrese.

Together, their skill shows in Canani's winning statistics as well as those of Miller's.

Though Canani still considers himself a California boy, he is content to split his time training in Florida and Illinois, given the chance to train a stable of 20 or so horses for Calabrese.

"I love California," he said. "It's my home, but there are other places to race."

And right now, the racing in south Florida couldn't be going much better for him.