Introducing Joe Petalino
Updated: March 10, 2011, 4:52 PM ETBy Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com
HOT SPRINGS, ARK -- The best trainer no one's ever heard of sent his Kentucky Derby hopeful out for a breeze last Saturday morning at Oaklawn Park."Don't write about me, write about the horse," he insisted. "That's the real story."
It is early March at Oaklawn, little more than two weeks after the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes, with a week-and-a-half left until the Grade 2 Rebel. These are the Kentucky Derby preps that culminate in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 14, and "the horse," 3-year-old J P's Gusto, readied for the second leg of the series with a strong six-furlong stint in 1:13.60 on March 5. It was his first official move since a troubled runner-up finish behind Archarcharch in the Feb. 21 Southwest. "That's a good work for him when he's working by himself," said Joe Petalino. "He's got an even running style and a big stride. He's going good right now (and) we'll look for a sharper five-eighths the next time before we run." Know more of J P's Gusto than you do about Petalino? You're not alone. Although the 62-year-old horseman has saddled close to 900 winners with earnings of over $15.5 million during a career that spans five decades, his name fails to register with much of the mainstream racing crowd. "He's a great guy, regarded as a good horseman, but not one for talking much, especially about himself," said Michelle Gass, a member of the public relations team at Remington Park. In 1998, the trainer set a record at Remington for single-season victories (69). It stood for 11 years, until Steve Asmussen broke it in 2009, but Gass said Petalino isn't one to brag and, "The best interview he ever did with us was when he thought he was just having a regular conversation after they convinced him the camera was turned off." If the trainer's retiring nature keeps him under the radar, his location assuredly aids that cause. A native of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, he now lives in Oklahoma City with his wife Kelly, a retired jockey, running anywhere from 30-60 horses primarily at Oaklawn, Remington, and Lone Star Park. While he's trained talented Thoroughbreds in the past, including Oklahoma Derby winner Mr. Pursuit (and winners of nearly all the other stakes races that the tracks he frequents have to offer), none have taken him to the top of the game. To date, his greatest career victory came in '98 with Grade 3 Dogwood Stakes victress Really Polish. "It's the Southwest circuit," said bloodstock agent and racing consultant John O'Hara, who was instrumental in sending J P's Gusto to Petalino and has known the trainer since the 1980's. "Unless you have those classic 3-year-olds or Breeders' Cup horses that make it on the big days, it's a lot harder to get on the national scene. That's just how our business is." Whatever the reason, thanks to this new runner, Petalino's days of relative anonymity are over. "I told him, 'Look, if this pans out like we think it can, you deserve one that'll bring you some national recognition,'" O'Hara said. "This is a really good opportunity for Joe to see how far this horse can take him."
Coady PhotgraphyJ P's Gusto (#5) finishes behind Archarcharch in the Feb. 21 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
Van Berg's operation was the forerunner of today's mega-stables; outside of New York he maintained divisions in California, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Minnesota. His operation ranked high in the standings at each meet, as top-notch contenders like Gate Dancer, Dave's Friend, and Wheatley Hall galloped to glory. But none was better-known than Alysheba, the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner who went on to a brilliant 4-year-old campaign that brought him Horse of the Year honors in 1988. Many times, when the bay son of Alydar went to the racetrack, Petalino was in the saddle. "A baby could have galloped him," the trainer recalled. "If there was a horse in front of him and he wanted to go to it, all you had to do was say 'wait,' or 'easy,' and he'd melt back into your hands like butter. Then when you'd say, 'Go get 'em,' he'd run at them like you wouldn't believe; it was like siccing a dog on them." Petalino still speaks of the colt with great fondness, and there's no question that, of all the horses he's ever ridden, this one was his favorite. "He did what he did out of boldness, never had an ailment of any kind," he said. "He had a lot of ability, that horse, and as a 4-year-old, jeez, he was just coming into his own. Riding him, it was effortless. People forget about him, but as far as racehorses go, he was a gift."
Coady Photgraphy3-year-old J P's Gusto has put trainer Joe Petalino in the spotlight.