Trombetta Still Carries Fond Memories of “The Saint”

BALTIMORE - Maryland trainer Mike Trombetta, who will send three horses to post on the Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness undercards, sits in a local diner sipping iced tea, talking about the uncertainties connected to horse racing, a game he has loved since he was a 15-year-old hot-walker and groom at Pimlico and Laurel Park. 
 
“Every year you’re excited, whether the horses give you a reason or not,” says Trombetta, who turned 50 last year and has been a trainer since he was 18. “You just don’t know what they’re going to turn out to be.”
 
If anyone knows that it’s Trombetta, who in 2005 was handed a horse - Sweetnorthernsaint - who arrived in his stable off a 20-length loss at Colonial Downs, Va., and less than a year later was the favorite in the 2006 Kentucky Derby (G1) and second-place finisher in the Preakness (G1).
 
He might also say it about life in general. A year after Sweetnorthernsaint’s success, Trombetta was thrown a curveball when he became part of the 1 percent of the world’s population that develop alopecia areata, a condition that causes clumps of hair to fall out and can cause the loss of all body hair.
 
Usually it attacks by age 20, but Trombetta was in his 40s when his immune system mistakenly attacked his hair follicles. Sometimes, the hair can grow back, but that was not the case for Trombetta, who lost all his hair, including his eyelashes, which may be the hardest part of the disorder as he works in a business filled with numerous barn and racetrack allergens.
 
When it happened rumors spread that he had cancer. His owners and friends worried. People who hadn’t seen him in awhile didn’t recognize him.
 
“They thought they were surprised,” says Marie Trombetta, Mike’s wife. “But we’re looking at him from the outside. He was looking out of the same eyes, and seeing himself as the same person. When he passed a mirror . . .”
 
“When I saw myself in the mirror, I would startle my own self,” Trombetta admits. “I’d been the same person for 40 years. You don’t expect it. And people would be behind me at the track and I’d hear them say to each other, ‘Is he alright?’ And, I remember an instance where someone didn’t recognize me and even when told who I was didn’t recognize me. It was kind of weird. My true friends were concerned . . . But there was nothing else wrong with me and my doctor said, ‘If this is the worst thing that happens to you . . . The good news is you’re healthy.’”
 
He laughs now that he has joined the company of such noted actors as Yul Brynner, Patrick Stewart and Telly Savalas, all of whom had or have some degree of alopecia areata.
 
Today, comfortable in his own skin, he is happy to be sending a handful of horses to the Preakness weekend undercard races.
 
“We try to support the weekend,” Trombetta says. “It’s our biggest day of the year in Maryland - for us and track management - and we love being there.”
 
Leading the way will be Dharmaster, a 3-year-old owned by Harry C. and Tom Meyerhoff. A Bodemeister offspring - just like Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming - Dharmaster placed third in the Private Terms Stakes in mid-March. He will run in the $100,000 LARC Sir Barton Stakes on Saturday.
 
The day before, Trombetta will send My Magician and Do What I Say to the post in the first and second races, respectively. Both horses are by Street Magician. Do What I Say, owned and bred by Marylander Larry Johnson, is a two-time winner and has been in the money in four of her five career starts. This will be her first race of 2017.
 
My Magician, also owned by Johnson and R.D.M Racing Stables, won the 2014 Maryland Million Lassie and has won twice since then. She is bred by Marylanders Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Bowman, Brooke C. Bowman, and Johnson.
 
Preakness weekend always brings forth memories of Sweetnorthernsaint for Trombetta. In spring 2005, Trombetta’s first year as a full-time trainer, owners Joseph Balsamo and Ted Theos gave him Sweetnorthernsaint. The horse turned out to be anything but a saint, though, according to his conditioner.
 
“He had mental issues,” Trombetta said. “He was high-strung and difficult. We gelded him and restarted him in the fall and he put it together. He did become a nice horse. Even the best athletes in the world have to have the mental capacity to do it, to keep their composure when they are being asked for their best.”
 
In 2006, the year Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby, “The Saint” was the betting favorite. Getting off to a bad start, he couldn’t recover and finished seventh. Sweetnorthernsaint went on to finish second behind Bernardini in the Preakness and gathered a following, especially in Maryland, where he was the local hero.
 
“He didn’t have the best of luck, but he had a chance in the Preakness,” Trombetta recalls. “It took a horse as great as Bernardini to beat him. I’m very proud of what he did. To be a Marylander and to have had a competitive horse in the Preakness is a very, very special thing.”
 
Sweetnorthernsaint, now 14, resides in Lexington, Va. He has become the much loved riding horse of Arran Silbert, who also is training him in dressage and hopes to have him competing later this year.
 
Trombetta has been able to build and expand his stable, thanks in part to Sweetnorthernsaint. 
 
“We were headed in the right direction with our stable,” Trombetta says now, looking back. “But he got us advertisements I could never have purchased. ‘The Saint’ propelled us forward.”
 
In 2006, Trombetta ran his 40-horse stable out of Laurel Park. Two years later, after the success of his Preakness starter, he was able to purchase a piece of land at the Fair Hill Training Center and build a barn. Now he has nearly 90 horses between his barns at Laurel Park and Fair Hill.
 
Every year he looks at his 2-year-olds, “and hopes one will pop out. We’re all aspiring to have that big horse,” Trombetta says. “You just never know. … Look at “The Saint”. He looked like a claiming horse and eight months later he’s the [favorite] for the Kentucky Derby. How can this game not excite you? Every time you get a new horse there is the new possibility of something great and that’s what makes our game so special.”