LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Now that he is here, actually here at Churchill Downs for his first Kentucky Derby, John Tammaro III still is the coolest dude on the backstretch.

"Cool as a cucumber," said his brother, Mike, a leading Kentucky trainer who cleared out a stall in Barn 12 for his brother's Concerto.

"And I'll tell you something else," Mike said. "His horse is cool like that, too."

Yesterday, cool reigned as a steady drizzle fell and Concerto, after galloping a couple of miles around the Churchill Downs oval, stood with his front feet in a bucket of ice.

That's normal for him and no reason for alarm, said his 65-year-old groom, Lawrence "Bubbles" Broy, an employee of John Tammaro III for 22 years.

And Tammaro stood in the rain, leaning against a brick manure pit, the twin spires of Churchill Downs in clear view to his left. He wore a classy green Kentucky Derby windbreaker -- a gift from track management -- but true to his roots, he wore a Pimlico hat.

"It's not a lot different than I thought it would be," he said of being part of the country's greatest race, the race he and his family watched every year on TV. "But being here up close, seeing it face to face, is kind of a thrill.

"You stand out in the gap, and you just see one nice horse after another. I stood over there the other day, and I saw Free House and Hello, and I saw [Shug] McGaughey's filly [Glitter Woman] come off the track."

He paused as another reporter joined the little knot.

"You can see this is a little classier place than where I come from," said the trainer based during the winter at Laurel Park. "A lot of the outfits dress up a little bit more than ours do. It's good to be here."

In an early morning line issued yesterday by Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia, Concerto was 6-1, tied for fourth choice with Free House (behind 5-2 Pulpit, 3-1 Captain Bodgit and 5-1 Silver Charm). Odds from Las Vegas, however, rank Concerto as a clear third choice for Saturday's race.

"He might not be getting the respect I think he deserves," Tammaro said of his horse, a winner of five races in a row. "I saw a little thing on TV here, and they showed a lot of the Derby contenders, about six of them as a matter of fact, and they didn't even mention him."

But Tammaro said his horse is a contender.

"I always wanted to come to the Kentucky Derby," said Tammaro, a 50-year-old resident of Howard County training the best horse of his career. "I just wanted a reason to come. That's hard to find. You can get a ticket to the Derby, but to get a horse to bring, that's another story."

Tammaro's main competition at Churchill Downs for Mr. Cool would be fellow Marylander Gary Capuano, trainer of Captain Bodgit.

Dozens of relatives of both trainers plan on attending the Derby. Two of Tammaro's are already at his side: brother Mike, the trainer, and sister Cathy, Mike's assistant -- not to mention their barn goat, Sandra, fat and happy.

Cathy Tammaro, born 40 years ago in Baltimore, said that when their mother, Dora, died last July, the family congregated at her home in Florence, Ky. She feared then, she said, that they wouldn't get together again for years.

But Sunday, March 30, the day after Concerto won the $600,000 Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park in Florence, the siblings and relatives gathered again at her house. It was Easter.

"This horse brought us all back together," she said. "It was one of the nicest Easters I can remember."

In five days, they'll assemble again as Concerto attempts to win the Kentucky Derby.

"There are definitely races with bigger purses," Cathy Tammaro said. "And the Breeders' Cup is close. But the Kentucky Derby is still the most important race in the world.

"None of us have ever been this close before. If he wins it. I just can't imagine. I don't know. I might just die -- die of happiness."

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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