As a boy growing up on Garrison Avenue, John Tammaro III would sneak under the fence at Pimlico, climb the steps of the grandstand and catch pigeons.
Tomorrow, Tammaro will return to Pimlico as a trainer to catch a greater prize: the outbound to Louisville. Although his Concerto will be favored to win tomorrow's Federico Tesio Stakes, the goal is the Kentucky Derby two weeks later at Churchill Downs.
And Concerto, as consistent and talented as any 3-year-old in the country, is one of a handful of horses with a legitimate chance of winning the Derby. For the 50-year-old Tammaro, who has never run a horse in a Triple Crown race, that would be the highlight of a life spent on racetrack backsides.
But last fall, when Tammaro and Hank Steinbrenner -- who manages the family horse operation for his father, George, who owns Concerto -- plotted the colt's winter and spring schedule, the Derby wasn't on it.
"But this horse kept getting better and better and better," Tammaro said this week at his barn at Laurel Park. "He made people take another look, and the game plan was changed."
When Concerto won the Jim Beam Stakes on March 29 at Turfway Park -- its $600,000 purse was by far the richest ever for Tammaro -- the game plan became the Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs and the Preakness on May 17 at Pimlico.
The Tesio became the Derby tuneup.
"I picked the Tesio for obvious reasons," Tammaro said. "I wanted the easiest race I could find for my horse. You don't want a tough, hard race two weeks before the Derby."
Tammaro knows his horse better than anyone. He has handled him since last year when the Steinbrenners, evaluating their 2-year-old horses, decided that this was only their fourth best.
The others, including Acceptable, went to their No. 1 trainer, Nick Zito; he has won two Kentucky Derbys with other owners' horses. Concerto and his modest expectations went to Tammaro, who trains in New Jersey during the summer and Maryland during the winter.
"I was the outlet for the horse that looked a little too weak for New York," Tammaro said. "I guess they thought he might be able to win some stakes in Jersey and Maryland and establish himself."
After two thirds in his first races at Monmouth Park and Belmont, Concerto has won six of seven. His only loss was by less than a length to Captain Bodgit in the Laurel Futurity -- the same Captain Bodgit already at Churchill Downs awaiting the Derby as the possible favorite.
Except for the Laurel Futurity and Jim Beam, Concerto has avoided the major stakes. That's because the Steinbrenners did not want him clashing with Acceptable in Florida.
"One of the reasons he's looked so impressive race after race is because of John's training," Hank Steinbrenner said of Concerto. "John's done a remarkable job with this horse. He's gotten 100 percent out of him -- or close to it -- every single race."
Tammaro accomplished that with a series of long gallops -- up to three miles -- interspersed with shorter, faster workouts. The combination, adjusted periodically, produced a horse with speed well as endurance.
Tammaro learned at the side of his father, John, a jockey and trainer -- an outstanding horseman still training at 70. Tammaro's grandfather rode horses -- he was killed in a jumping accident -- and his great-grandfather trained horses on the old half-mile circuit in Maryland. His son John IV is a blacksmith.
"I've got family pictures of me sitting on a horse when I was so young I can't remember," Tammaro said. "I just always loved being around horses."
He attended Pimlico Elementary, Pimlico Junior High and Mergenthaler High School. At 12, he began galloping horses for his father. His father ruled him off at 14 because he'd grown too stocky. He sulked for one summer and mowed lawns. But the next year he was back, working around the barn before and after school.
After a year in Vietnam as a medic, he returned to the racetrack in 1969, working for his father until breaking out on his own in 1976.
"This is an up-and-down business," Tammaro said. "You get up early every morning. You work out in the cold. You train horses that sometimes don't do too good.
"But training a horse like Concerto, it's a thrill, to say the least. Getting a horse like Concerto that wins the Jim Beam makes it all worthwhile."
Next, it's the Tesio. Then, it's the Kentucky Derby, where gamblers will examine past performance and question the caliber of horses Concerto has beaten.
But Tammaro knows his horse.
With his voice lowered, almost to a whisper, he said: "I think he can win."
NOTES: Concerto drew post No. 7 and was deemed the 3-5 favorite yesterday in a field of eight 3-year-olds for the $200,000, 1 1/8 -mile Federico Tesio Stakes.
From the rail out, the field with odds, trainer and jockey: Bleu Madura (15-1), St. Lewis, Castanon; Fearless Play (6-1), Robb, Prado; Dipiperon (12-1), Callejas, Klinger; Work My Nine (20-1), Dutrow, Johnston; Cryptocloser (12-1), Capuano, Martinez; Dr. Best (3-1), Hadry, Hamilton; Concerto (3-5), Tammaro, Marquez; Jack At The Bank (12-1), Callejas, Klinger.
The Tesio is one of five Pimlico stakes tomorrow that make up the Maryland Spring Breeders' Challenge. It is also the opening race of the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championships (MATCH), comprised of 35 races in five divisions at tracks in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.
Pub Date: 4/18/97