This time of year, trainers with Kentucky Derby hopefuls are beginning to see the glass either half empty or half full.
Patrick Biancone isn't among them. "It is a long way from the cup to the lips," he says smiling as he stands in the shedrow of his barn at Santa Anita.
He definitely has a Derby candidate in Lion Heart, who's gearing up for the April 3 Santa Anita Derby after his first career loss, a second in the March 6 San Rafael Stakes. But like any good Frenchman, Biancone is somewhat of a wine connoisseur, so he knows that it is the appreciation of the entire process -- the presentation and smell before the taste -- is just as important as the ultimate result.
"Who knows anything really right now?" answering his own question, "Can they get the distance; how are the training can't really be answered until the Kentucky Derby. It's not like Europe where they can run at the same distance as a big upcoming race this young in their career. Here you hope for the best. That's why it's important to like every minute of the process."
Biancone has savored many moments in a career that officially began in 1975 when he took out his trainer's license at the age of 23. Before that he was an assistant to his father Pierre, traveling Europe observing and learning from top conditioners. He came to the U.S. briefly and worked for Hall-of-Famer Leroy Jolley.
On his 29th birthday, he won the 1981 French Derby with Bikala. His reputation grew rapidly with outstanding showings on the grand stage of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, winnning France's greatest race with Horse of the Year All Along in 1983, and the next year with Sagace. The latter finished first again in 1985 but was disqualified to second.
The talented young trainer was getting offers from virtually every major stable in Europe and some in the U.S. as well. In 1990, he made the decision to leave France, opting for the rare, prestigious invitation from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, where he would become the country's dominant trainer for a decade. But Hong Kong would also be where Biancone would endure the lowest point of his career. In 1999 he was suspended for almost a year after his horses tested positive for drugs on three separate occasions.
In 2000, Biancone left Hong Kong and came to America, settling in Florida, where he took out a trainer's license. He had popped in and out of the States before, winning some big races and running well in others including a pair of second-place finishes in the Breeders' Cup Turf with All Along and Strawberry Road in 1984 and '85.
Biancone knew that American racing and its fans loved the young horses, their rise or fall on the way to the Triple Crown races got the headlines and brought the TV cameras to the backside in the mornings. He began developing 2-year-olds who would win major stakes like Zavata, Whywhywhy and Mayakovsky, but because of injuries or distance questions, they didn't make it to the Kentucky Derby.
His first Derby runner was last year, the last-place finishing Brancusi. "A mistake. He was simply not a Derby horse and we tried to make him one," laments Biancone.
Lion Heart could be his most talented hope. The colt is a perfect 3 for 3 as a 2-year-old, capping off his freshman season with a six-length victory in the Grade 3 Hollywood Prevue and a three-and-a-half-length score in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 20. Biancone patiently waited to race him again until the recent San Rafael. "The February races here (in California) were too short, I didn't want him to go back to seven furlongs, that why I waited (for the one mile San Rafael).
Even though Lion Heart was passed in the final sixteenth by San Vicente winner Imperialism to lose the San Rafael by half a length, Biancone continues to enjoy the trail to Kentucky. "My horse ran a brave race, when the other got beside him, he tried to restart himself. After two and a half months between races, that was a strong race for him. Now we'll see if he gets the extra furlong (in the Santa Anita Derby) and then if he gets that other furlong after that (in the Kentucky Derby). I expect he will train well, he's a running machine and loves to gallop. The key is don't let him do too much now."
Biancone looks toward the art deco grandstand at Santa Anita where the sun has perfectly placed itself between two palm trees. He points to it. "People ask me why not try the East Coast or go here or there," he pauses and takes in the view the answer apparent on his face. "You should love this business, but understand with love comes sweet and sour. That's why you have to relax and enjoy it as well."
It's even more enjoyable when back at the barn is a legitimate Derby contender.