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Off the beaten path to success

Walk around Barn 35 at Belmont Park and you forget that bustling Hempstead Turnpike is right outside the gates. Roosters poke around outside and inside, 20 thoroughbred horses stand in their stalls, eating hay, waiting to compete in front of thousands on another busy race day.

In terms of racetrack barns, those at Belmont Park are in pretty good shape. But it’s far from luxurious for those who work in them day in and day out. The temperature outside is a balmy 85 degrees on a recent Wednesday, where thousands are hoping to hit the $4.4 million Pick Six.

But inside Barn 35, the dirt floor is muddy, the smell of manure wafts through the air and the cramped office of the trainer is sweltering.

It’s exactly where Greg DiPrima wants to be.

“This is it, this is where it all happens,” DiPrima said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It’s great.”

Had the Howard Beach native followed his career path out of college — he graduated from  St. John’s University with a degree in marketing — DiPrima would have been working at Merrill Lynch. His sweat-soaked T-shirt and jeans would be replaced by a three-piece suit, his office would have been air-conditioned, there would be corporate outings and two weeks vacation.

But there wouldn’t be any horses.

“If you love it like I do, there’s nothing else you want to do,” DiPrima said. “It is seven days a week, there’s really no vacations. It’s hard work. There’s not a morning I get up when I say, ‘Oh, shoot, I’ve got to go to work.’”

The average day for DiPrima starts at about 4:30 a.m., where he preps the horses for that day’s races. There’s feedings, usually at 11 a.m., a snack at 4 p.m. and dinner at 9 p.m. and plenty to do in between. He figures his days are about 14 hours and then there’s the unpredictable commute home on the Belt Parkway.

At 36, DiPrima is somewhat of a newbie in the training game. Every day at Belmont, he goes against giants in the game, guys like Gary Contessa, Bobby Frankel, Todd Pletcher, Bruce Levine and Rick Dutrow, who trained Big Brown to wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

But after just two years of going out on his own, DiPrima already has a stable of 20 horses and he’s based out of Belmont, where he has four wins in 23 races this season. He works with six owners, including Mike Repole, whose Repole Stable has about 75 horses. Repole is No. 9 in the country in total wins.

“A lot of the game is about having the stock,” said Repole, a Middle Village native and president of Whitestone-based Vitaminwater. “For the stock that he has right now, I think Greg is doing an incredible job. You see him get horses off other people and he just improves horses. They just get better with him.”

One of DiPrima’s wins this year was with Repole-owned Mass Charles. DiPrima began hotwalking horses for trainer Frank LaBoccetta Sr. at 15, when he was still a student at Christ the King. He later served as an assistant for seven years for Frank LaBoccetta Jr. before going out on his own December 2006.

Owner Thomas Thienel gave DiPrima his first horse — a filly named Elkhorn. A little more than a month later at Aqueduct, DiPrima had his first win. The jockey that day was Alan Garcia, who just won the Belmont Stakes aboard Da’Tara.

“It was pretty special,” DiPrima said.

What is also special is DiPrima’s eye for claiming horses, which is similar to recruiting in college athletics.

“He does a real good job at picking his spots and putting horses in races where they belong,” said Jason Blewitt, a NYRA television host and handicapper. “He’s skilled at claiming horses, knowing to give them at least four weeks between races.”

Part of that comes from DiPrima’s hands-on approach to training. He’s got a veteran assistant trainer in Vincente Morgan, but he does a lot of the dirty work himself.

“I know them head to tail, every one of them,” DiPrima said. “I know their tendencies on the track and in the barn. When you’re around them so much, it’s like they’re my kids.”

Reach Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at dbutler@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

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