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Amonte Already Has a Derby Contender

March 15, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) _ Frank Amonte Jr. is a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time: In a matter of months, the unsung horseman has gone from exercise rider to assistant trainer to the trainer of a Kentucky Derby prospect.

Last week, Amonte replaced Jennifer Pedersen as the trainer for Ernie Paragallo’s Paraneck Stable, about 50 horses strong. Among them is Achilles of Troy, one of the favorites in Saturday’s Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

The 1 1/16-mile Gotham is a steppingstone to the May 6 Derby. A promising effort and it’s on to the Wood Memorial next month before Achilles of Troy is shipped to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.

Pretty heady stuff for a 47-year-old guy from Brooklyn who’s been waiting a lifetime to call himself a trainer. He’s still a bit stunned by the turn of events that landed him a job he’s dreamed about since he was 7 years old, when his father, jockey Frank Amonte Sr., first put him on a horse.

``It’s all amazing,″ the new trainer said Wednesday at Aqueduct. ``I was surprised when Ernie asked me. He wanted to know if I had workman’s comp and insurance and when I said yes, he said, `You’re my trainer. I was blown out by it.″

The move was a surprising one in racing circles, too. Paragallo and Pedersen formed a solid team for several years, winning stakes with the likes of Griffinite (Lafayette, 2001) and New York Hero (Lane’s End, 2003). Pedersen also broke horses for Paragallo, including 2002 Belmont Stakes winner Sarava, who was sold before the horse started racing.

While Pedersen has been listed on racing programs as the official trainer of Achilles of Troy, it’s been Amonte who’s been handling the 3-year-old colt as he was winning his last three races, including the Count Fleet by 14 lengths and the Whirlaway by 4 3/4 lengths. Amonte’s name will be listed Saturday.

Why hire an untested trainer for one of New York’s leading stables?

``He’s a hard working guy, he’s dedicated,″ Paragallo said before Amonte saddled the winner of the fifth race, Fuego Grande. ``He’s impressed me with his work ethic, and to be honest, I’m not that impressed with most of the other trainers.″

After Achilles of Troy worked a half-mile Wednesday, Amonte pronounced the gray son of Notebook ``perfectly fit″ for the Gotham.

``We just sent him out to open his lungs and stay fresh,″ Amonte said.

Before he signed on with Paraneck, Amonte spent five years as an assistant trainer for Gary Contessa, who has the Aqueduct barn next to Paragallo. But Amonte said advancement wasn’t in the cards so he quit last August.

A few weeks later, he took a job exercising horses for Pedersen.

``I rode for about three weeks, then she gave me the assistant’s job after letting two other assistants go,″ Amonte said. ``Then, when she parted ways with Ernie, he told me to take over. I’m grateful to Ernie for giving me a chance.″

So far, Amonte Sr. has brought fame to the family. Last year, at the age of 69, he became the oldest rider to win a thoroughbred race in the United States, according to racing records. He rode Evas Boy to victory at Suffolk Downs on Aug. 10, 2005.

Dad was proud when he heard the news about his son. But he said it was a long time coming.

``He’s rubbed horses, walked horses, he’s done everything and he knows what he’s doing,″ Frank Sr. said from Florida. ``We’re all rooting for him. After all, how often does someone have a chance to train for a big operation like that _ and with Derby contender, too?″

For the record, Frank Sr. plans to become the first 70-year-old to win a race. He’ll try later this year at Suffolk Downs after he recovers from breaking two toes about six weeks ago when a horse reared up in the starting gate.

``You bet I’m going to win another race. That’s what it’s all about,″ he said. ``And wouldn’t it be great if I won on a horse trained by my son? How many people have done that?″

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