Female trainer looks for Preakness upset
By David Ginsburg
BALTIMORE - Jennifer Leigh-Pedersen already has bucked the odds to make it to the Preakness. She hopes her horse, Griffinite, can do the same thing Saturday.
"And you wonder why the horse is a little psycho?" Leigh-Pedersen said Tuesday with a wry grin.
Just the ninth female trainer to put a horse in the Preakness, Leigh-Pedersen was managing Ernie Paragallo's farm in upstate New York, working primarily with 2-year-olds, when Paragallo asked her to assume the responsibility of training Griffinite.
The horse promptly won the Lafayette States on April 11, then backed up that victory 11 days later with a second-place showing in the Lexington Stakes. Griffinite skipped the Kentucky Derby in favor of the shorter Preakness, but is still relatively untested at 1 3/16 miles.
No problem, says Leigh-Pedersen, who is seeking to become the first female trainer to saddle a Preakness winner. The best finish by a female trainer occurred in 1992, when Casual Lies took third for Shelley Riley.
"I've been training him to do the distance," Leigh-Pedersen said. "He's bred to do that. He's been training like he can run all day."
Exercise rider Debby Landry is convinced that Griffinite can handle the distance.
"I don't think that's going to bother him," Landry said. "He likes to train. He'll go out there and gallop steady for two miles."
Griffinite was trained as a 2-year-old by Louis Albertrani and Richard Suttle. Leigh-Pedersen now finds herself in the national spotlight, plunked in the middle of a profession dominated by men.
She has embraced the opportunity.
"Women have given so much to this business that people have overlooked," she said. "Everyone thinks you have to be a cowboy to do this job. Well, that's just not true."
Leigh-Pedersen, 38, has been working with horses since she was 16. If she's feeling the pressure during the most important week of her professional life, it was hardly evident as she leaned against a fence outside the stakes barn at Pimlico while soaking up the media attention and morning sunshine.
"I'm very new at this and I've got a lot to learn," she said. "I got very lucky, getting this job. But I don't know where I'm going to be tomorrow. If he calls me back to the farm, I'm OK with that."
Leigh-Pedersen may not have the experience of a Nick Zito, but she's no novice.
"She's wonderful. She has good horse-sense, is very intelligent and has a feel for it," Landry said.
As if there wasn't enough to do, Leigh-Pedersen spent Tuesday morning looking for a rider for Griffinite. Jose Santos, scratched after he broke his wrist Saturday, will be replaced by Shaun Bridgmohan, who will be riding in his first Triple Crown race.
"I'm pleased we got Shaun," Leigh-Pedersen said. "He's very able and he's willing to be patient with a horse. That's what we need."
This much seems certain: Griffinite has a willing and capable trainer for as long as Paragallo wants to keep Leigh-Pedersen on the job. A solid performance Saturday would clinch the deal for the trainer, who relishes Griffinite's status as a longshot.
"One never knows. They say the Preakness is always ready for an upset," she said. "I like being the underdog. I don't like being the favorite, no way."