05/15/2006 11:00PM

Trombetta's big horse the local hero

Jim McCue / Maryland Jockey Club
Sweetnorthernsaint, under exercise rider Ernesto Ferdinand, gallops at Laurel on Tuesday. The colt's trainer, Mike Trombetta, was born and raised in Baltimore County, Md. - and, he says, there's no race on earth he would rather win than the Preakness.

LAUREL, Md. - In Kentucky, the Derby is a two-week affair. When a local wishes you, sincerely but ungrammatically, to "Have good Derby," it encompasses not only the race, but all the surrounding festivities, ranging from the balloon race to the steamboat race to mass consumption of Derby Pie.

No one in Maryland wishes you to "Have good Preakness." Not because they are rude, but because, despite the attempts at ancillary events, here it's all about the race. No more, no less. Pimlico doesn't have sky boxes or twin spires, or scores of celebrities sipping $1,000 drinks. It's a utilitarian track in a working-class neighborhood that happens to host the second leg of the Triple Crown.

And as much as Kentuckians swoon over the Derby, their passion runs head and head with those who work in racing in Maryland for the Preakness. There is a palpable sense of pride among Maryland-based owners and trainers regarding the Preakness. It might be sacrilegious to suggest that someone who was born here, and races here, desires the Preakness more than the Derby. But it's a photo.

Just ask trainer Mike Trombetta. He was born and raised in Baltimore County. On Saturday, he will send out his first Preakness starter in Sweetnorthernsaint, who figures to be the third choice behind Barbaro, who won the Derby, and Brother Derek. For Trombetta, 39, the Preakness has been a two-decade quest, since he first got a trainer's license when he was 18.

"For me, to run in and win the Preakness, that would be the world," Trombetta said Tuesday morning. "If you're from this area, people associate the Preakness like people in Kentucky do the Derby. It's our one day of the year, to see all the good horses come to town. To be a local guy and participate, hopefully with a live horse, is really special."

Trombetta was standing along the backside of Laurel Park, where he is based year-round, watching Sweetnorthernsaint go through a routine 1 1/2-mile gallop with exercise rider Ernesto Ferdinand. It is about a 30-minute drive from Laurel to Pimlico, but in many ways the tracks are farther apart. Magna Entertainment, which owns both tracks, has spent millions of dollars on Laurel, widening the turf course and main track and putting down new surfaces on both. Pimlico suffers from benign neglect. It has far fewer race days than Laurel, and few noticeable capital improvements outside of some landscaping.

Pimlico does, however, have the Preakness, which will be run for the 131st time on Saturday. It is also the track where Seabiscuit beat War Admiral in their celebrated match race nearly 70 years ago. That's tradition and history that cannot be duplicated anywhere else in this state.

Sweetnorthernsaint is one of nine horses who on Tuesday were considered definite for the Preakness, with Greeley's Legacy and Platinum Couple upgrading from being possible on Monday.

Platinum Couple, who was scheduled to arrive at Pimlico on Tuesday night after a van ride from Belmont Park, will be ridden by Jose Espinoza, according to trainer Joseph Lostritto. "In this game, if you can't dream, then get the hell out," said Lostritto, 68.

George Weaver, the trainer of Greeley's Legacy, was still mulling a decision on a jockey, but the leading candidates were believed to be Richard Migliore and Jose Santos.

The only other possibility for the Preakness is Ah Day, who would have to be supplemented to the race for $100,000 because he was not an original nominee to the Triple Crown. Entries were due on Wednesday.

Neither Sweetnorthernsaint, Barbaro, nor Brother Derek are scheduled for workouts this week. Bernardini, who won the Withers Stakes, was to work Tuesday at Belmont Park, but the drill was postponed because of inclement weather.

Sweetnorthernsaint most recently finished seventh in the Derby. He got off poorly, then was forced to try and rush through the field down the backstretch. He was fourth at the top of the stretch, but could not sustain his elongated rally under jockey Kent Desormeaux.

"I knew I was a dead man the first time past the wire," Trombetta said. "He couldn't recover from that start. It's not my horse's style. He moved early, but he had to try to find some position. He was put on defense instead of being on offense."

Sweetnorthernsaint returned to Laurel two days after the Derby. He joined the other 32 horses Trombetta has here; the trainer has another 10 at Delaware Park. Early Saturday morning, Sweetnorthernsaint will be sent by van to Pimlico for the Preakness.

"He'll get there reasonably early, around 6:30 or 7," Trombetta said.

Nearly 12 hours later, Sweetnorthernsaint will race. The waiting began, though, when Trombetta was in his teens.

"I went to the track an awful lot as a kid with my dad," Trombetta said. "I started walking hots when I was 15, and was a groom when I was 16." Two years later, Trombetta had his license and a couple of, as he put it, "cheapie family horses" to train.

Trombetta has come a long way. He owns a 15-acre farm in Fork, Md., where he lives with his wife, Marie, and three kids. Trombetta has a formidable stable, including such stakes-class stalwarts as the mare Princess Pelona - who runs in the Grade 3, $200,000 Allaire duPont Breeders' Cup Distaff Stakes on Friday at Pimlico - the sprinter Weigelia, and older star Your Bluffing, who is a terror at Laurel. Last year, Trombetta's horses won 53 races and $1.5 million in purses.

Trombetta had horses going to and from the track all morning - many of whom were dark bays with white blazes, like Sweetnorthernsaint - and all were well muscled with gleaming coats.

"I take an extraordinary amount of pride in what I bring over to the paddock," he said.

Never more, though, than on Saturday. Have good Preakness.

- additional reporting by David Grening

Preakness contenders

Horses pointing for the 131st Preakness at Pimlico on May 20.

BarbaroM. MatzE. Prado1st, Ky. Derby
BernardiniT. AlbertraniJ. Castellano1st, Withers
Brother DerekD. HendricksA. Solis4th*, Ky. Derby
DiabolicalS. KlesarisR. Dominguez1st, Allowance
Greeley's LegacyGeorge Weaverundecided4th, Lexington
Hemingway's KeyN. ZitoJ. Rose8th, Lexington
Like NowK. McLaughlinG. Gomez2nd, Lexington
Platinum CoupleJoe LostrittoJ. Espinoza5th, Wood
SweetnorthernsaintM. TrombettaK. Desormeaux7th, Ky. Derby
Possible entrants
Ah DayK. LeatherburyR. Fogelsonger1st, Tesio

* - Dead heat