04/30/2008 11:00PM

Twin spires called Lobo from Brazil

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For as long as he can remember, trainer Paulo Lobo was fascinated by racing in America. Though he grew up in Brazil, the son of a successful trainer, Lobo had always desired to leave his homeland and come here. He would have to start over, with few horses, and both he and his wife would have to learn a language they had spoken only sporadically at home. There was one race that kept calling him, and he wanted, one day, to be part of it.

"Every year they would show the Kentucky Derby on ESPN over there," Lobo said. "I would see Bob Baffert winning, D. Wayne Lukas winning. I wanted to be here."

He has made it all right. Lobo, 39, was standing in the stable area at Churchill Downs, with the track's famed twin spires in the near distance. Lobo got here through the courage to leave the cocoon of his native country, his keen ability to train a racehorse, and the development of the 3-year-old colt Gayego, who won the Arkansas Derby three weeks ago and on Saturday will give Lobo his first starter in the Kentucky Derby.

This, however, is not Lobo's first experience with the madness of Derby Week. In 2002, only 16 months after relocating to Southern California and starting out with a mere six horses to train, Lobo won the Kentucky Oaks with Farda Amiga, who would go on to become that year's champion 3-year-old filly.

"I remember the crowd that year, 100,000 people," said Lobo, a genial man whose heavy accent has receded a bit during his time in the United States. "What a feeling. I was here only one year and four months. She was one of the six horses I began with. We started together. I had five babies and one claiming horse."

Farda Amiga was the first horse by which Lobo showed that he is one of the rising stars among North American trainers under age 40. That summer, Farda Amiga came off a 10-week layoff to win Saratoga's Alabama Stakes. Since then, Lobo's top horses have included the brilliant Pico Central, who shipped from California to New York to win both the Met Mile and Carter Handicap in 2004, and Molengao, who won last year's San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita. He now trains 32 horses, all based at Hollywood Park.

Gayego is the best horse in the barn right now. Although he is by the sire Gilded Time, whose progeny are usually better at sprints, Gayego successfully stretched out to 1 1/8 miles in the Arkansas Derby. In five starts, he has won three times, and finished second twice.

"He showed me he had ability from the beginning," Lobo said. "I went into the Arkansas Derby with a lot of confidence. He was doing very well. I felt he was moving up. But there's always a concern about the distance."

Gayego is the phonetically spelled name for residents of the Galicia region in northwest Spain, who are known as gallegos. Gayego is owned by the Cubanacan Stables of Carlos Juelle and Dr. Jose Preito, Cuban exiles who lived in Spain and then met in Southern California 25 years ago. Since 1991, they have bought one horse per year at the Keeneland September yearling sale, where bloodstock agent Suzanne Cardiff purchased Gayego in 2006 for $32,000.

Lobo came to the United States by choice. But Juelle, an accountant, and Prieto, a physician, came here by necessity. Both were on the outs with the Castro government in Cuba, and had harrowing experiences after Castro came to power. Juelle was forced into a labor camp for two years when he first applied for an exit visa. He finally was granted a visa in 1970. Prieto, who cared for soldiers fighting against Castro, was sentenced to death by firing squad and only survived because of lobbying by an in-law who was a high-ranking official in the Castro government. After being imprisoned for five years, he was allowed to leave Cuba in 1973.

By contrast, Lobo had it far easier. His immigration to the United States was a leap of faith, but it did not come after staring at the wrong end of a gun. Lobo's father, Selmar, a former jockey, is now a trainer based in Sao Paolo. Lobo has an uncle who is a veterinarian, a cousin who trains, and a brother who is a horse auctioneer. Lobo, the youngest of three children, at first wanted to be a jockey, too.

"But my father never let me," Lobo said. "He said, 'No, no, no, you are going to study.' "

Lobo did study, enough to pass a test and be accepted into pre-veterinary schooling. But one month before classes were to begin, he told his father he wanted to work for him and become a trainer.

"He was very, very tough with me," Lobo said. "Now it is a different league. He said, 'Tomorrow, 5 o'clock with me.' The next day, you bet, 5 o'clock, I was leaving with him. For five or six years, he didn't give me one day off. He was very tough, but I was glad, and I think I did the right thing."

Lobo married his wife, Carolina, in 1993. By the end of that decade, Lobo more seriously entertained the thought of moving to the United States. "For two years before we came, we took classes in English over there at an American school in Brazil," Lobo said.

In 2001, clients of Lobo's father in Brazil agreed to set him up in the United States with those original six horses.

"We were very apprehensive," Lobo said. "I did not have any parents here. Carolina did not have any parents here. It is a hard thing to do. I was very afraid. But I have thought many times, Jesus, it's going to work. I always wanted to try here since I began working with my father. I wanted to be around good horses and good horsemen, especially good horses.

"People have always treated me very well here. Very professional."

Lobo's immediate family grew 2 1/2 years ago, when his wife gave birth to twin daughters, Maria Eugenia and Maria Clara. They will all be at the Derby, along with Lobo's mother-in-law, who is coming from Brazil.

And with Gayego, Lobo believes he has a chance to win a race he once only dreamed about from afar.

"I think he's improving," Lobo said, "at exactly the right time."