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Belmont trainer lives a family tradition

Trainer Angel Penna watches the morning workout at

Trainer Angel Penna watches the morning workout at Belmont Park in Elmont. (May 31, 2012) Credit: Ed Betz

It is 5:56 a.m. on a muggy morning, and Barn 32 at Belmont Park is bustling.

Trainer Angel Penna Jr., 63, keeps 14 horses in the shed row that bears the initials "AP Jr." on a small, dark-blue sign. The 144th Belmont Stakes is just days away, though none of these horses will be running in the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Here, it is business as usual. Penna, moving from horse to horse, stoops and runs his eyes and hands over each one's legs, searching for any bump or fissure that wasn't there the night before. In the stall of a 3-year-old gray filly, he takes the flat side of a pen and rolls it along her back and shoulders, touching acupuncture points. He quickly does a chiropractic adjustment on her spine and gives her a friendly slap on the neck.

Down the shed row he goes, adjusting and touching and patting his horses. This has been Penna's life, seven days a week, for four decades. A trainer at Belmont since 1980 who lives in Manhasset, he comes from a long line of horse trainers in Argentina, including both grandfathers and his late father, who won more than 250 stakes races in his 50-year career and was named to the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in upstate Saratoga Springs.

Much has changed. Thoroughbred racing used to be called "the sport of kings," he said. "Now, it's absolute business."

Penna has had winners, including two fillies who were national champions and two New York-bred champions, and has trained three Breeders' Cup starters. He also was the trainer of Mr. Light, who in 2005 set the world record for the mile on turf at Gulfstream Park in Florida, a record that held until 2010.

Since 1980, his horses have had 3,070 starts, with 556 firsts and earnings of more than $23 million, according to Equibase, which provides racing data to the Daily Racing Form.

But it's hard to compete these days, he said, with big outfits that have 300 horses.

"When you have the quantity, there is a race for every horse," he said. With a limited number of horses, "you've got to wait for the right race. You don't work so freely; you are much more cautious."

He said he is excited by the prospect of I'll Have Another winning the Triple Crown, if a little depressed that none of the horses he is training is in the running.

His wife, Ruth Hargreaves Penna, 50, his assistant and one of his three exercise riders, said Penna has had a hard time adjusting to the current trend of trainers who actively advertise themselves. In the past, owners more often came to trainers through connections or word-of-mouth, she said.

"For the older trainers, it's hard to develop an aggressive style and market themselves," she said. A Brit who rode professionally in steeplechases in her native England before coming to the United States, she met Penna at a track in Florida and went to work for him. They have been together 15 years and married a year and a half.

The routine is demanding, but one honed by so many years that Penna and his 12 employees barely need to talk.

"I like what I do," Penna said. "It's all I know how to do."

About 6:15, the first three of nine horses being worked that day are saddled and readied for riding. As the riders get a leg up into the saddle, Penna gives each instructions in a low voice. The riders nod and the horses walk calmly out of the shed row.

Penna grabs his binoculars. Soon he will be sitting in the empty stands, intently watching his horses gallop, as he -- like his father and grandfathers before him -- has done hundreds and hundreds of times before.

New York Sports