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BILL DWYRE

The Pamplemousse and his cast of characters are Derby-worthy

He wins Santa Anita's Sham Stakes by six lengths, much to the delight of veteran jockey Alex Solis and longtime trainer Julio Canani.

March 01, 2009|BILL DWYRE

So far, the stars of the Kentucky Derby prep season are a horse named after a grapefruit and a trainer who is a lovable fruitcake.

Jockey Alex Solis rode The Pamplemousse around Santa Anita's mile-and-an-eighth course Saturday like a guy driving to the grocery store at midnight. Nobody in front, nobody to the side. No sweat.

He won the $200,000 Grade III Sham Stakes by six lengths and it appeared as if The Pamplemousse wanted to go around again.

"I've never ridden anything quite like this," Solis said, "and I've ridden lots of pretty good horses."

Garrett Gomez, the jockey aboard runner-up Take The Points, who did everything short of setting a firecracker off in his horse's ear to try to catch Solis as they turned for home, probably summed it up best, after The Pamplemousse merely shrugged and went to yet another gear.

"The winner looks like he's the real deal," Gomez said.

There are two months to go before the big show May 2 under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs, and lots can, and does, happen in that time. But were they to run the race next week, The Pamplemousse would be front and center.

And, everybody in horse racing, including those who write and broadcast about it, would be giddy. Talk about story lines.

The horse was picked out at auction for its owners, and is partially owned, by Alex Solis II, the son of the rider. His dad will turn 45 next month, has won many big races, but never a Kentucky Derby, and is likely to be elected into the Hall of Fame next month, an honor he badly wants and has eluded him several times.

If voters had forgotten about Solis, they remember now.

The owners, along with Solis II, are Carol Bienstock and Ann Winner of Encino, as well as William Strauss of Del Mar, whose brother, Jeff, is the chef at a restaurant they own in Del Mar, across from the racetrack. The name of the restaurant is the Pamplemousse Grille, named by Jeff Strauss for his favorite French word, which means grapefruit.

And those aren't the best story lines.

The trainer is a racetrack legend named Julio Canani, who did not become a legend because of his winning ways. Canani is legendary for, well, being Canani.

He arrived in 1963 from Peru and is in his 70s, but nobody is sure how deep into his 70s.

Recently, he has been listed as being exactly 70, but after the race Saturday, he said he is really 72, that the immigration people got it wrong. One veteran reporter said that will be 75 by Friday.

Canani should speak Spanish, or English. But he speaks neither. His language of choice is a touch of Spanglish, with a Portuguese and Italian accent, flavored by German syntax and Norwegian verb forms.

In other words, nobody knows what it is, especially Canani.

During Saturday's gathering with the media in the winner's circle, Canani said (we think):

* He didn't care about what time his horse ran. "Time only counts when you are trying to get out of jail."

* He didn't have Derby fever. "I maybe catch a cold. I have no temperature."

* The thought of the Kentucky Derby was huge pressure, so he just ignores it. "Maybe I go to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Want some fries?"

* He wasn't educated, he wasn't a good student. "I spent four years in fourth grade."

* He wore the same shirt Saturday as he did six weeks ago, when The Pamplemousse won the San Rafael Stakes here, and he didn't launder it. "If you don't like that, that's your problem."

* He is not sure if he is training the horse or the horse is training him. "He runs times in the morning I don't want him to. But I can't stop him. Alex can't stop him, either."

He talked about how it used to be easier for immigrants to get green cards, about how he came from nowhere and used to feed his family selling carrots at the tracks, and about being very superstitious.

Throughout, he had a feminine-looking handbag tucked under his arm and explained that, at the races recently, he had been carrying the computer case of the daughter of a friend because he thought it was too heavy for her. His horses won, so he decided to carry her computer case for The Pamplemousse's race.

Every angle was tried with Canani, who tries to scowl at some questions and can't quite get there, because he is having so much fun.

His horse has won wire to wire in both the San Rafael and the Sham, posing the question of whether The Pamplemousse might have trouble being tucked in behind another horse for part of a race. Was Canani worried about that?

"Who cares?" he giggled.

The Kentucky Derby is an eighth of a mile longer than Saturday's race. Did it worry Canani that maybe his horse couldn't go that distance?

"I should shoot myself in the head," he said.

So, if form holds for two more months and The Pamplemousse continues to show well, including his likely next outing in the April 4 Santa Anita Derby, the state of Kentucky and the world of horse racing won't quite know what hit them.

They'll be putting grapefruit squares in the mint juleps.

New Hall of Famer Alex Solis will be doing interviews about changing the diapers of one of the horse's owners.

Japanese journalists will be interviewing Julio Canani.

And understanding every word he says.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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