05/04/2006 12:00AM

Trombetta has done it the hard way

"It's not like you can go to college to do this. You learn, and your survival is predicated on how well you learn." - Michael Trombetta on training Sweetnorthernsaint

Ask anyone who does it, and they will tell you that training racehorses is a full-time job on its own. But until recently, when he was done training in the morning, Michael Trombetta would put down his stopwatch, pick up a hardhat, and work construction.

Trombetta did it in part to support his growing family and in part because it was his brother Dino's company for whom he worked.

"A typical day since he's been a trainer is he'd work from 4 in the morning to 8 or 10 at night,'' said Rudy Trombetta, Michael's father. "Whether it was with the horses or with construction, he was on the constant go. He never stops.''

"I've always had a pretty strong work ethic,'' said Michael Trombetta. "To be quite honest, a guy like me, you got to work hard to make it.''

Trombetta, 39, no longer has the time to do both jobs. When you train a top Kentucky Derby prospect such as Sweetnorthernsaint, your focus changes.

"You go to see him in the morning as an owner, you better stay out of his way,'' Ted Theos, a co-owner of Sweetnorthernsaint, said of Trombetta one recent morning on the Churchill Downs backside. "After he's finished, then he'll talk to you.''

Trombetta's first trip down the Triple Crown trail has been an interesting one, and he has navigated the obstacles like a seasoned veteran. There was an outbreak of equine herpesvirus on the backstretches of two Maryland tracks that prevented Sweetnorthernsaint from shipping out of town for two months. There were bad post positions in two significant Derby preps, and there was jockey Kent Desormeaux oversleeping and missing an important workout.

In between, Trombetta's wife, Marie, had the couple's third child, and his father underwent double knee replacement surgery.

"I kind of roll with the punches,'' Trombetta said. "I'm not taking my eye off the focus of the horse. Generally, I'm off on Sundays. But I've been seven days a week now for the last couple months trying to make sure everything is just the way we wanted it to be.''

Unlike many of his colleagues, who had the good fortune to learn their trade under future Hall of Fame horsemen, Trombetta has been on his own since taking out his trainer's license at the age of 18. He worked as a groom for Maryland trainers Frank Wimpfheimer and Donald Hendricks when he was in high school, but got his license shortly after graduating.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would have loved to been able to seek a job working for an organization,'' Trombetta said. "Like [Todd] Pletcher, he came up under [D. Wayne] Lukas and things like that. I probably missed out on a little of that. I would have loved to have been around Grade 1 horses. I could have probably been a great asset for somebody.''

The first horses Trombetta trained were for his father and brother, who had a few cheap claimers. Trombetta won his first race in 1986 and his first stakes in 1991. It wasn't until the last five years that things began to take off for him. He won 21 races in 2001, and his wins and starters have increased each year since. In 2005, he won 53 races from 255 starters and was named Maryland Trainer of the Year by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

Horses he has trained include Bop, a high-caliber turf sprinter, and Your Bluffing, a multiple stakes winner whom Trombetta owns with his father and brother. Trombetta also trained Wolfer, the dam of Derby starter Steppenwolfer, for his father, who sold the mare for six figures.

"It just takes time,'' Trombetta said. "Very few people just break onto the scene and all of a sudden, 'Wham! Here they are.' And a lot of them that do, don't stay around long.''

Trombetta has 34 horses stabled at Laurel Park and another 12 at Delaware. At Laurel, his barn is next to Buddy Delp, who trained Spectacular Bid, the last Maryland-based horse to win the Kentucky Derby, in 1979. Trombetta said he has talked to Delp on occasion.

"He's a Hall of Famer, and anything he wants to share with me I take in,'' Trombetta said. "I use a little bit from everybody, that's how I try to get better at what I do. I'm a good listener. If the right guys want to talk, I take it in, but it's not like I don't have the confidence in how I want to train.

"I just take it all in and watch how other people do things, and that's how I learned,'' Trombetta added. "It isn't like you can go to college to do this. You learn, and your survival is predicated on how well you learn.''

Trombetta received Sweetnorthernsaint after the horse ran 12th in his first start at Colonial Downs. Trainer Leo Azpurua, who was semi-retired, advised the owners and Trombetta to castrate the horse because he was so rambunctious. Sweetnorthernsaint, a son of Sweetsouthernsaint and the mare Ice Beauty, was gelded in the fall of last year, and it made quite a difference.

He finished first by 16 lengths in a maiden claiming race, though he was disqualified for interference leaving the gate. Trombetta immediately contacted Steve Rushing, the agent for Ramon Dominguez, and said he wanted to run this horse in a maiden race at Aqueduct. The horse ran six furlongs in 1:09, won by 7 3/4 lengths, and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 102.

Trombetta began to consider what to do next, but his options became limited when an outbreak of the equine herpesvirus forced almost all Maryland-based horses to remain in the state. All of a sudden, finding the next race was a secondary concern.

"It's not prejudiced in any way, and it travels mysteriously,'' Trombetta said of the virus. "It could be traveling from the starting gate to horse vans. You can disinfect. You can try and run the cleanest operation possible. But it's like the flu for people - try not to get it. You hope.''

Most jurisdictions put restrictions on shippers from Maryland so Sweetnorthernsaint had to run in the Miracle Wood Stakes at Laurel, and he won by 10 lengths.

Trombetta was planning to run next in the Gotham, but New York officials had placed a ban on Maryland shippers. Fortunately, the ban was lifted just in time for Sweetnorthernsaint to run in the Gotham. Unfortunately, he drew post 10, had a wide trip, and finished third, beaten less than one length by Like Now.

Trombetta then chose the Illinois Derby. Again, Sweetnorthernsaint drew post 10, but this time the gelding had no trouble as he galloped to a 9 1/4-length victory. Kent Desormeaux, who rode the horse in both the Gotham and the Illinois Derby, said that he felt he rode a much better horse in the Illinois Derby. "I knew before the doors opened this was going to be something special," said.

Desormeaux, who has ridden two Kentucky Derby winners, said he believes the gelding's laid-back attitude will help him in a field full of high-strung types.

"You could light a firecracker underneath him, and he'd say 'Did you drop something?' '' Desormeaux said.

"That's what's going to set him way ahead above the rest because I think the other ones are feisty, as you can tell by the way they drag their riders around the racetrack. This guy works off my fingertips, so Michael has done a wonderful job of teaching him how to be a racehorse.''

Like his trainer, Sweetnorthernsaint has proven to be a quick learner.