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A change of pace — and career — for Sweetnorthernsaint

In a field beside a gravel lane that leads to a 200-year-old farm house, two horses kick up their heels at play.

One of those horses has a broad, bold white blaze down the front of his face and a white "sock" on each of his two left ankles. Sweetnorthernsaint, the Grade II Illinois Derby winner who went off as the betting favorite in the 2006 Kentucky Derby and finished second in the Preakness, is easily recognizable if you know who you're looking for.

At age 7, the bay gelding, owned by Baltimore-area residents Ted Theos and Joe Balsamo and trained at Laurel Park by Maryland native Mike Trombetta during a memorable 3-year-old season, has been retired here, to Black Fox Farm in the rolling hills of Carroll County near Libertytown.

"When I see him now, as quiet as he is, it's hard to believe he was such a successful racehorse," said Lisa Reid, who with her husband, Michael, owns Black Fox Farm. "When you saw him running today, that was unusual. I haven't seen him romp like that in months. Even when you call him at dinnertime, he just wanders up. He's just very laid-back."

The plan is to retrain "The Saint" as a fox hunter.

At the top of the field near the barn — where the horse has a front-room suite, complete with electric fan, an in-house video recording system and a picture window overlooking the neighbor's cows — a photographer starts taking The Saint's picture. When the horse hears the shutter's staccato clicking, he comes to a stop, turns his head toward the once-familiar sound and trots directly to the camera.

As a 3-year-old, Sweetnorthernsaint heard the sound of clicking cameras almost daily.

Once he jolted his connections to attention Feb. 4, 2006, by smashing the Miracle Wood Stakes record at Laurel Park with a 10-length victory, he was on his way. The Saint followed that with a third-place finish in the Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct Race Track and won the Illinois Derby by 91/2 lengths. The race earned him a 107 Beyer Speed Figure, the highest recorded by any 3-year-old in 2006, and assured his trip to the Kentucky Derby.

At the Derby, he went off as the betting favorite and quickly moved to the front before finishing sixth behind eventual winner Barbaro. While The Saint's performance was creditable in the 20-horse field, the attention went to the winner, who won by 61/2 lengths, the largest margin since 1948. The performance, coupled with the unusual training methods of Fair Hill Training Center-based Michael Matz that brought Barbaro into the Triple Crown Series unusually well rested, made the Derby winner a very plausible candidate to win the elusive Triple Crown.

Two weeks later at Pimlico Race Course, however, Barbaro's career came to a crushing conclusion when he was pulled up shortly after the start of the Preakness with a shattered right rear leg. Sweetnorthernsaint, meanwhile, took the lead for most of the race, only to be beaten in the stretch by eventual Horse of the Year Bernardini.

As a gelding, The Saint was never going to a breeding farm. The only way for him to earn his keep was to race, and many owners of geldings run them until the horses just can't run anymore. They keep dropping them in class while hoping someone else will claim the horse and rid them of the no-longer-productive animals.

But shortly after The Saint's 3-year-old season, co-owner Theos said he would never sell or mistreat the horse who had given him and Balsamo so much joy. And after Sweetnorthernsaint had made it through three more seasons with stakes wins in each, the owners assessed their horse and decided it was time to retire him.

The Saint finished his career with eight wins in 17 races for earnings of $947,632.

"He deserves to be in a good place," Trombetta said. "He's a long-barreled gelding, and the sport was hard on him. Just like with any other athlete in any other sport, he couldn't perform forever. We as horse owners have an obligation to take care of our animals, especially a horse like him. Ted asked me if I could help find him a home, and I sent him to Laurie Calhoun, who has a farm and has taken care of our horses on layups [recuperative breaks from racing] for 20 years."

It was Calhoun who showed The Saint to Reid and saw the two develop an instant rapport.

Reid's Black Fox Farm, a breeding farm specializing in Thoroughbred and Clydesdale crosses, is the place the Illinois Derby winner calls home and the place where he will soon begin learning a new career or two, thanks to Reid, his new caregiver.

"I'm going to teach him dressage and then how to be a fox hunter," Reid said, loosely holding The Saint's reins as he munched the green grass, as relaxed as any family pet.

Reid met The Saint when she went to Calhoun's farm to look at several other horses for David Pickett, the new huntsman at the Howard County Iron Bridge Hounds Club, for which she also rides as the whipper-in, the person designated to keep the hounds under control with the use of a long leather whip.

"Laurie showed me The Saint, and he isn't quite big enough to be the huntsman's horse," she said. "I said: 'He looks like a lady's horse. He ought to come to my house.' I just really liked him from the first time I saw him."

Her plan was to bring him back to Black Fox Farm last fall and turn him out in the fields for a few months of relaxation before starting to train him this past summer. But Reid developed an ankle problem that required surgery, and she has yet to ride her horse.

"I'm not known for my patience," she said. "But I'm to the point now where I can start training him to do some things. How to step up on the trailer, how to be calm around the hounds. He already loves Brazen [her Jack Russell terrier] and doesn't mind him in his stall. I'd be very surprised if he can't make the transition."

In fact, The Saint is already making some transitions. When he first arrived at Black Fox Farm, Reid said, he was so used to other horses giving way to him that he didn't know how to react to the domination of others.

"He lost a little weight when he first got here because the mares let him know, 'You can't eat here — or there,'" she said. "But he's learned since then. He doesn't take their stuff anymore. And when they make a face at him, he'll put his ears back and make a face back at them and holds his ground."

Reid likes that he's holding his own. He'll need to be brave to handle his future as she teaches him to walk, then run through water, jump over fences and keep his composure when she cracks her whip under his nose at an overzealous hunt dog.

She believes he will like the attention that goes with his new training. But on this autumn afternoon, Sweetnorthernsaint is simply happy being released back into the field with his companion, the aptly named Pal of Mine. The two canter down the slope of the field, the stress of major league thoroughbred racing a distant memory recalled only when a camera's shutter clicked.

Reid said the agreement she has with Theos and Balsamo is that if The Saint doesn't work out as a fox hunter or she no longer wants him, he will be returned to Calhoun's Summer Wind farm.

"The agreement is he comes back here," Calhoun said. "And then I'll look for another place for him."

But Reid, 52 and a life-long horsewoman, said she doesn't foresee giving him back.

"I like him," she said. "I see no reason why he wouldn't be here forever."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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