When trainer Robertino Diodoro looks in the rear-view mirror the past - even if it is more than two decades ago - seems like yesterday. “I was 18 years old and I told my mother I was going to train thoroughbred race horses,” said Diodoro, 42. “She just about had a fit. She thought I was nuts. The first thing she asked me was what horses I was going to train. I told her I had leased two horses from Gene White,” he said of the late former training giant.
“I got 80 per cent of what the horse’s won; Gene got the other 20 per cent. It sounded like a good deal at the time. The math, however, didn’t exactly work. Eighty per cent of nothing is still nothing. I raced those horses at Trout Springs,” he said of a small oval near Calgary which closed its doors in 1998. “There was just no money to be made. The purses were about $600. At the end of that summer I had to borrow money off my mom to pay the blacksmith.”
Yet, from those very humble beginnings, Diodoro went on to be one of Alberta’s top trainers before leaving the province four years ago. Since then he has established himself as one of the top trainers in the continent. With over 1,500 wins he is now based at Minnesota’s Canterbury Downs where he has 75 horses under his care and where he has been the leading trainer the last two years and is once again leading the standings this year.
But that’s just a small glimpse of the Diodoro empire. Diodoro trains a total of 125 horses across North America. He has 25 more thoroughbreds stabled at Del Mar, California; 20 at Iowa’s Prairie Meadows - where his barn is winning at a rate of 34 per cent - and five at Woodbine in Toronto. Two of those horses - both Alberta owned - are being prepped for Northlands Aug. 20 $150,000 Canadian Derby: Inside Straight and Solve. Both will run in Monday’s Manitoba Derby at Assiniboia Downs.
“It all depends how they do in Winnipeg but everything is arranged for both horses to recover for a few days after the race and then come to Edmonton next Thursday.” Inside Straight, owned by Randy Howg, is his best bet. Bought shortly after he won a $40,000 claiming race at Aqueduct, New York, Inside Straight exits a third-place finish at Assiniboia where the first- and second-place finishers will both confront him again in the Manitoba Derby. “I don’t like to make excuses but he had some,” Diodoro said of the three-time winner. “A little too much shipping for starters. We trained him at Woodbine after we bought him and then shipped him to Winnipeg. He was also probably too far back; he wants to be closer to the pace. And, he had no pace to run at; the early fractions were pretty slow. Then when Rico (jockey Walcott) made a move he ran into traffic. I think you’ll see a different horse on Monday.”
Solve, Diodoro said, is a pretty “straight forward” horse that has made three of his last four starts on the grass while racing in Kentucky and Louisiana’s Fair Grounds. Interestingly, the lone dirt effort in that quartet of races - when rain forced the race off the turf - was one of his better efforts - coming from well off the pace to lose by a nose. “He worked really well over the dirt at Canterbury and I think he’s a horse on the improve. He’s not a horse that has fully matured or peaked. Hopefully they both run well and both come to Edmonton.”
In a sport where ups and downs are as frequent as sunrises, the Canadian Derby has given Diodoro his personal highs and his personal low. In 2013 he won it with Broadway Empire romping home in the slop; the following year it was Edison’s time to turn the lights on winning by 11 1/2 lengths. “Of all the highs I’ve had in this sport Broadway Empire was probably the highlight. It was quite the ride for everyone. After he won the Canadian Derby he also won the Oklahoma Derby going wire to wire - finding another gear when challenged and then he was gone.”
As for the lows picking out just one of the many travails horse racing brings is easy. And hard. 'The 2004 Canadian Derby,' recalled Diodoro with an audible wince painfully recalling Controlled Meeting’s photo finish loss to Ontario’s Organ Grinder. “I ran Controlled Meeting in the Ky Alta and he wins. Then we skipped the Count Lathum. On purpose. Yet he still went off at 34-1 in the Derby; Organ Grinder was the odds-on-favourite. Everybody said Controlled Meeting couldn’t run that far (a mile and three-eighths). Blah. Blah. Blah. But I knew he could. I worked him a mile before the Derby and he did it easily. Still nobody thought he could win. Blah. Blah. Blah."
“Controlled Meeting, who loved peanut-butter cookies, took the lead and at the three-eighths pole he put away three horses. But here comes Organ Grinder. They meet up at the top of the lane and they go nose to nose all the way down the stretch. Jump for jump. At the wire you couldn’t tell who won. I watched the race over and over. You just can’t tell. “We were sitting in one of the outdoor boxes at Northlands and they had betting machines up there. I got so excited that I climbed up on top of one of those machines. How I got up. Why I got up there. I have no idea. But I just went nuts. When they hit the wire a friend of mine grabbed my leg and said ‘You got it; he came back on.'"
“But I couldn’t tell. Nobody could for sure. Then I went running through the grandstand. Everybody else was still outside waiting for the result of the photo so there was nobody there except for one old guy watching one of the TV monitors." “I yelled at him. ‘Who won?’ He just looked at me like I was nuts. ‘Who won?’ I said again. The outside horse or the inside horse?" “He just shook his head. So I went running outside to where both Controlled Meeting and Organ Grinder were parading around waiting for the result. Then they put up Organ Grinder’s number. Toughest beat of my life.”
From Trout Springs to the Canadian Derby. From Northlands to Del Mar. From two leased horses to 125. And from his mother thinking he was crazy for getting into the business in the first place, Diodoro’s career rise has been nothing short of spectacular. “Did I think this would happen when I first started training horses at Trout Springs? Definitely not. But was it a dream of mine? Was it a goal? “Probably.
“My mom’s dad, Jim Dorman, used to train a few horses - one or two; three or four at the most - so it wasn’t like getting into horse racing came out of the blue. “And my dad, Tino, used to help Jim out in the mornings before he went to work. “I loved going with them to the track and that hasn’t changed. “I still love the winning. Whether it’s with a $3,000 claimer at Lethbridge or a hundred grand stake at Santa Anita. It’s the most addicting thing there is. The biggest rush ever. “I played sports all of my life. I played hockey until I was 21. I played basketball. Playing in tournaments used to be such a big rush. But nothing compares to winning a horse race. “Nothing.”
Diodoro has had plenty of successes in his still-young career. But he said he owes all of it to the owners and the barn help that he has. “I’ve always had great owners. Many of the horses I train today are still owned by Alberta guys who were with me almost from the beginning. And the help I have is unbelievable. I’ve got three assistants who are all young guys that used to train on their own. And my girlfriend, Kristina Kenney is like my barn foreman. They’re all a big part of my success. It’s been a good go. I’ve gone to Turf Paradise in Phoenix for the last 11 years. I’ve been the leading trainer there the last three years. But it sure didn’t use to be like that.The first few years I went down there I’d be like 0 for 30. Then 3 for 70. Then maybe 10 for 90."
“Every day I learn something different. Especially who to claim horses from and who not to claim horses from. When I first went to California I couldn’t win any races. That was probably because I was claiming horses off of guys like Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill. Some guys are just to sharp to claim horses from. And some guys aren’t. I’ve learned that the horse’s records aren’t as important as the records of trainers."
“We all get frustrated. Everybody in this sport has had their hearts broken. You get depressed. But I can’t imagine doing anything else. Every day I get up in the morning, jump out of my vehicle and walk into a barn full of horses. How does it get better than that?”