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."
* * *
The two came up together through the tough, no-nonsense school of Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg's outfit in the 1980's. O'Hara hailed from Maryland, worked summers for trainers like Patrick Byrne and John Forbes, then graduated to full-time employment in the industry before landing an assistant's job with Van Berg. Petalino got his start galloping horses after a race-riding period that began with his first winner at Pimlico in 1968. He trained on his own for a while at Penn National and in New York before working as an assistant to trainer Glenn Hild in the late 1970's, then finally worked his way up the ladder with Van Berg in the early '80's, starting as an exercise rider and ending up in charge of the New York string.
"He was a good hand on a horse and did a good job," recalled 74-year-old Van Berg. "I teach my boys when they work for me; they'd better be good horsemen or they're done."
"Jack probably did best he ever did in New York when Joe was in charge of the horses there," O'Hara said. "He's just a tremendous horseman."
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."
* * *
Memories of those early days were what led O'Hara, along with partner Steve Bajer, to advise owner Dr. John Waken to send a potential Kentucky Derby contender Petalino's way -- but Petalino can also thank an unaccomplished daughter of Arch named Bard's Day for his shot with J P's Gusto. Back in May of last year, Bajer, who manages Waken's GEM Racing, wanted to make a change with the filly. She was running in cheap claiming races at Santa Anita for around $18,000 and $20,000, but couldn't break her maiden. O'Hara, who runs Equine Prep Thoroughbred Sales and Management Agency with Bajer, told his partner to have Waken send her to Petalino. First time out for her new trainer, she won by 2 ½ lengths at Lone Star on the grass.
When the GEM Racing management team decided to send J P's Gusto through Oaklawn's 3-year-old series, and trainer David Hofmans opted not to take time away from his California-based stable to travel with the horse …
"We said, 'Hey, look, Joe's stabled there, we don't have to ship back and forth,'" O'Hara recalled.
"It wasn't a matter of if the horse was going to go east, it was a matter of when," said Bajer. "This series set up perfect for him with the mile, mile-and-a-sixteenth, mile-and-an-eighth, all at the same track. We thought it would be a good trio of races for him and we're very happy to have him with Joe. He knows what he's doing; he knows what a good horse is."
Petalino's behind-the-scenes involvement extends beyond great runners like Alysheba. In recent years, he started Great Hunter, who was purchased by J. Paul Reddam and trained by Doug O'Neill to win the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes in 2007 before running in the Derby (he finished 13th but came back to compete in graded company the next year). Although Petalino is reluctant to compare runners, he said J P's Gusto has ability -- the stuff to take it to the next level.
"I haven't had anything this good in a while," Petalino said. "Oh, I had some $500,000 or $600,000 purchases, we had some good 2-year-olds that we pinhooked and stuff like that, but nothing of this caliber as a 3-year-old. Or if I did, thanks to injuries and stuff like that, they didn't make it this far."
In spite of his low profile, the challenge of taking on a talented runner or two is nothing new for the seasoned horseman. From the early 1990's to 2000 he was the head trainer for Edward Gaylord II's Lazy E Training center in Guthrie, Oklahoma, having retained that job after transferring there with Van Berg and remaining when the Hall of Fame trainer chose to return to California. Gaylord has since scaled back his involvement in the Thoroughbred industry but remains invested through Gaillardia Racing (he owns Lecomte Stakes winner Wilkinson, who will make his next start in the March 26 Louisiana Derby).
"It was hard to lose that arrangement," Petalino said. "Money was no object. We'd go to the sale, buy the horses we wanted, we were upgrading and getting better every year."
In 1997, horses trained by Petalino brought in a little over $1 million, in 1998 and '99, $1.8 million, and in 2000, the same year he won the training title at Oaklawn, $1.4 million.
"I had the best of both worlds -- a state of the art training facility and a lot of good clients with a lot of money," he said. "It wasn't on a Bob Baffert scale, but it was enough to send horses to New York, keep horses in Kentucky year-round, and have the southwest string. I was training everything off the farm; the year I was leading trainer at Oaklawn I had 28 stalls there but every winner shipped right off that farm to run."
When Gaylord decided to shift the focus of the training center from Thoroughbreds to Quarter Horses (he eventually sold the facility), Petalino parted ways and continued public training at Remington. John Cherry, who was Alysheba's groom, went along and still works as his head assistant.
"It wasn't a private job, so I had accumulated a lot of clients who kept their horses there and the better ones came with me because that place was closed down," the trainer explained. "I moved everything to Remington right away, the horses, my clients and all."
* * *
In the 11 years that have passed since then, Petalino has held his own. His horses average between $600,000-$700,000 in purses per season. In 2010, he saddled 286 starters for a 30-42-28 statistic and earnings of $732,436. This year is off to a slow beginning -- from 38 starters he's won just two races, with six runners-up and eight third-place finishers -- but J P's Gusto holds promise, and he's the best prospect the trainer has had in a while.
Already a proven stakes contender last year for Hofmans (he took the Willard Proctor Memorial Stakes, the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship, the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes, and the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, the latter by 4 ½ lengths), the bay son of Successful Appeal ran second by a length in the Southwest after he was forced to steady to avoid the drifting winner, and having been caught behind a wall of six horses going into the turn. It was his first trip over the Oaklawn dirt and just his second outing on dirt overall -- he ran sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last November, his first time off an artificial surface.
"This horse has quality," Petalino said. "I think his best races are ahead of him, and he has a lot of upside. He's still doing exceptionally well, and he handled the racetrack. The Southwest was the first time he ever had dirt in his face like that, and he ran into it the other day, that's for sure. He came back with about three inches of mud caked on him."
"Hopefully he's as good as we think he is and if we get some luck, he'll get in the national picture," said O'Hara. "He's only run one time since November, and with last year's foundation we've got a pretty live, well-rounded horse to tackle this 3-year-old campaign. We think we're in a great position and we love the fact that he's coming back right around four weeks after we got the race into him. The horse is really, really thriving, and his last two races he hasn't even been able to run, so we're just hoping we get a clean run next time out that will enable us to truly evaluate him."
Until the March 19 Rebel, Petalino will continue his steady, straightforward conditioning. He's appreciative of the opportunity, but, as always, he's taking a levelheaded approach to what could be.
"I try not to get too excited, because this game is awful humbling," he said.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.