JC / Railbird

Massachusetts

The King Is Dead

Carlos Figueroa's King of the Fairs sign on his Suffolk Downs barn

If you know the name Carlos Figueroa, you’re probably a New England racing fan. The trainer most associated with the defunct Massachusetts fair circuit died at age 88 on Tuesday at his home in Salem, New Hampshire. He had been recently ill. “His wife, Pearl, reportedly went to wake him, but could not.”

You could call Figueroa “colorful” — he had a flair for attracting attention wherever he went. Lynne Snierson passes along a characteristic story:

[Michael] Blowen, who labored in the barn for two years without ever seeing a paycheck, has many fond memories of his former mentor and holds him close in his heart.

“We have a horse here at Old Friends named Summer Atttraction, who I think just turned 23, that I owned. Carlos ran him as a 2-year-old in a two-furlong maiden race at Suffolk Downs in a four-horse field in 1997 on a big day. One of the other horses was owned by Jim Moseley (Suffolk’s late track owner and a prominent owner and breeder) and that horse cost over $200,000. Summer Attraction, whom I paid $5,000 for, won.

“So Carlos decided to next run him at Saratoga in the Sanford (G3). The race came up so tough that Favorite Trick (eventual 2-year-old champion and 1997 Horse of the Year) scratched out of it.

“In the paddock, the reporters all wanted to talk to Carlos even though Nick Zito, Wayne Lukas, and the other big-time trainers were there with their horses. Carlos told them, ‘If my horse wins, they’re going to rename the race Sanford & Son.’ My horse ran two furlongs and stopped cold. That story sums up The King.”

Blowen* captured Figueroa for the Boston Globe in 1982:

Trainer Carlos Figueroa, wearing a panama hat and a red polo shirt, is standing on top of a yellow tractor on the infield shouting at the top of his lungs, “Quatro, quatro, quatro,” as the horses in the eighth race at the Three County Fair in Northampton turn for home.

This is no ordinary race. It is the second leg of the Lancer’s Triple Crown, a series of races running from late August through late September that is as important to Figueroa as the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont are to Woody Stevens. And the horseman is trying to scream home his entry, Icy Defender, No. 4.

“Of course this race is important,” said Figueroa, as he strolled through the backstretch earlier that morning. “It’s the Triple Crown of the fairs. But I’m not in it for the money, I want the fame. Fame.”

Figueroa, who looks as if he could play Juan Peron in “Evita,” won the first leg two weeks earlier at the Marshfield Fair with Cheers n’ Tears, a 5-year-old who worked his way down the Suffolk Downs claiming ladder from $6500 on the Fourth of July to $3000 on Aug. 9. He received his trophy and had his picture taken by the track photographer just a few hours before the lady mud wrestlers and fireworks display took over the infield.

“I like records,” he said, while checking Cheers n’ Tears’ foreleg. “That’s why I want to win today. I have two horses in the race — this one and Icy Defender. I want to be the first one to win the Triple Crown.”

It was a horse named Shannon’s Hope that made Figueroa’s legend. Robert Temple tells the story in his book “The Pilgrims Would Be Shocked“:

… in 1963 Figueroa entered … Shannon’s Hope a total of eight times in 13 days and won five straight at distances from about 5 furlongs to about 6 1/2 furlongs.

The saga of Shannon’s Hope began August 12 when he finished fifth at the Weymouth Fair. The next day he finished third and two days later he was fourth. Then Shannon’s Hope began his hot streak. He won closing day at Weymouth on August 17 and moved to the Marshfield Fair on August 20 where he was a five length winner. He then won at Marshfield on three successive days (August 22-24) by a total of nine lengths.

Talk about durability. Shannon’s Hope ran a total of 309 races, winning 29 of them for total winnings of $39,848. When I asked Figueroa … why he entered Shannon’s Hope so often he replied, “He just like to run, run, run.”

In 1999, the trainer was suspended by the Suffolk Downs stewards for 90 days and fined $500 after a horse named Watral’s Winnebug tested positive for cocaine. The suspension was later shortened to 45 days by the state racing commission. Figueroa defended his innocence, telling the Globe:

“I know how to train horses,” said Figueroa, who was represented by attorney Frank McGee. “I don’t need cocaine to make horses run. I’m a good horse trainer. Cocaine is no good to me. Horses run on good food, a good trainer, and a good jockey.”

The state racing commission cited his reputation and record — he had never been suspended before — as a reason for reducing his days. “I don’t think he had anything to to do with [the positive],” said one of the commissioners.

Figueroa, “a fixture at Suffolk since the 1950s,” started his last horse at the East Boston track on November 13, 2010. His career stats on Equibase only go back to 1976 — between that year and his retirement, he won 846 races from 9,841 starts, earning more than $4.1 million.

T.D. Thornton remembers:

For anyone who knew Figueroa at Rockingham Park and Suffolk Downs, the two main tracks at which he was stabled for decades, conversations with “King Carlos” often involved being shouted at in heavily accented English while trying to avoid his wildly gesticulating arms. He was forever phoning the Suffolk press box with good-natured demands for publicity and press coverage, and Figueroa liked to regale anyone who would listen with outlandish, difficult-to-document claims, like the time he allegedly singled all the winners in the very first Pick Six in the country when Rockingham offered the bet in the 1960s.

Here’s one more story:

*In a 2000 column for the Globe, Blowen’s wife, Diane White, recounts the deal Figueroa made with him when he went to work for the trainer:

“You are a student at Figueroa University,” he told Michael, “and you are on scholarship.”

Brockton Delays

The racetrack at Brockton Fair

Planned racing at the Brockton Fair has been pushed back to August:

The property owner and the association both said that more time was needed to budget for administrative costs and to fix the inner rail of the track, which was damaged by a vandal last year who stole about 1,000 feet of the metal barrier to sell for scrap.

“We would have hoped to start a little bit sooner,” said Bill Lagorio, president of the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “We are hoping, with all things considered now, we’ll race in August, September and October. … We don’t mind going a little further into the fall because it’s nice racing weather anyway.”

If a meet at Brockton happens this year, training and racing will take place over four months on the five-furlong dirt track. Lagorio addressed safety concerns raised by observers about that plan:

Lagorio also responded to criticism of the track, which he said is mostly being leveled by a rival horse racing association that is participating in the six races at Suffolk Downs this year. Lagorio said that some people unfairly point to the injury of one horse when racing last took place at the Brockton Fairgrounds in 2001, but he said the sport inherently has its risks.

“There’s nothing not safe about Brockton,” Lagorio said.

Count me among the worried, and not because of anything that happened 15 years ago. Thanks to greater attention on safety issues, ongoing research, and the Equine Injury Database, we now know more about track surfaces, injuries, and risks than we did a decade ago. We know that dirt tracks consistently register more fatalities than turf or synthetic tracks, averaging 2.07 fatalities per 1000 starts from 2009-2014, compared to 1.65 for turf and 1.22 for synthetics. Over the same six years, races at distances less than six furlongs averaged 2.25 fatalities per 1000 starts, compared to 1.82 for races six to eight furlongs, and 1.74 for races longer than eight furlongs.

The work of Dr. Mick Peterson has yielded clues into how track maintenance and moisture content affects safety. Dr. Tim Parkin, studying the EID, has identified factors that may make a horse more vulnerable to fatal injury, including past injury, time between starts, drops in claiming price, and age.

For what Dr. Parkin’s work means in practice when it comes to a vulnerable horse population, read Dr. Jennifer Durenberger’s Thoroughbred Racing Commentary piece about reducing the fatality rate at Suffolk Downs in 2014:

Let’s look first at the catastrophic injury rate for the meet: 1.24 per thousand starts. This is down from 1.73 in 2013 — a nearly 30 percent reduction. While I maintain that this particular metric tells only a small part of a much bigger story about the job we do protecting the overall safety and welfare of our equine athletes, it’s still the easiest number for us as an industry to obtain and compare across jurisdictions — both major league and minor league. Thanks to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database (EID), which captures data from an amazing 93 percent of all flat racing days, we know that the average catastrophic injury rate in 2013 was 1.9 per thousand starts. That includes all horses – young and old, graded stakes competitors and seasoned claimers, sprinters and routers, turf specialists and mudders. When we separate that by surface, we see a nationwide average of 1.63 catastrophic injuries per thousand turf starters and 2.08 per thousand dirt starters. At Suffolk Downs in 2014, the turf rate was 1.44 and the dirt rate was 1.20 – less than 60 percent of the national average.

Thanks to some of Dr. Tim Parkin’s comprehensive epidemiological analysis of five years of EID data, we know that there are certain risk factors associated with catastrophic injury. Nine have been identified with statistical significance, including older horses, horses making “numerous starts within the past 1-6 months,” and horses entered in claiming races for a tag less than $25,000. It’s no secret that the vast majority of horses competing at Suffolk Downs fit squarely within this profile. For years, Suffolk has welcomed equine athletes in the later stages of their careers and helped transition them once the race was over. Our catastrophic injury rate was achieved amongst a population of some of the highest-risk horses in the country — competing for some of the lowest purses in the country.

High-risk horses competing for small purses — that’ll be racing at Brockton.

And those horses will be training and racing on a bullring that’s five furlongs with a chute. Last month, at the Grayson-Jockey Club Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit, Dr. Peterson addressed an issue that should interest anyone considering running at Brockton — what are the musculoskeletal effects of turning? You can watch the archived video of his presentation — it’s less than 20 minutes long, and begins at approximately 1:12. The upshot — turning is stressful, and more so on dirt surfaces, due to their variability. He raises a provocative question — “Do traction limited horses [as those running on dirt may be] have a certain number of allowable turning strides?”

The causes of racing injuries are complex, and safety can never be absolute — but the conditions that horses will be asked to race under at Brockton, and the kind of horses who will be entered to race, are higher risk.

One last thing — Brockton, as a condition of the racing license approved by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission last fall, only has to make a good faith effort to earn NTRA Safety Alliance accreditation.

Horses first, says the Massachusetts racing office. For all involved, racing at Brockton will put that motto to the test.

7/19/16 Update: The Brockton request for Race Horse Development Fund money for purses is back on the agenda for the July 21 MGC meeting.

Left Out

Display promoting the proposed New England HBPA horse park

Let’s talk about the New England HBPA proposal for a non-profit horse park, a multi-use complex comprising a racetrack, an equestrian center, and a retirement farm. The group released a feasibility study authored by the Center for Economic Development at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst late last week (PDF), which concluded that such a facility — a “truly unique” model — would have an annual economic impact of $98.9 million on the Massachusetts economy. More than $66 million would come from the Thoroughbred racetrack, $31.7 million from the equestrian center. More details about the equestrian center and the proposal’s numbers can be found in the Blood-Horse and Daily Racing Form articles about the study.

I’m a racing fan, and what I most want to know — when Suffolk Downs is gone, and the horse park is where I have to go to get my local racing fix — is what the racing will be like. The study sketches out a simple vision:

Page 4 —

[The economic impact totals] are built on the following assumptions: 75 racing days during a typical season between May and October; 9 races per day; 800 horses in residence throughout the season; an average of 3,000 spectators per race day; and an out-of-state attendance rate of 20 percent.

Page 7 —

The center will feature a one-mile dirt oval racetrack designed for the safest possible racing of Thoroughbred horses for a 60-90 day season per year. This track could also serve as a venue for Standardbred horse racing if there is interest. Within the oval is a 7/8 mile turf course. Overlooking the track will be a viewing stand capable of seating 4,000 patrons. Within this facility will be restaurants and local wagering areas.

Page 25 —

We estimate that the new facility will attract 225,000 spectators per year … [have a] relatively smaller grandstand … a typical racing day will draw somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 visitors, while special events (such as the MassCap) can draw up to 10,000. [The MassCap lives!]

Page 29 —

We assume that the present purse subsidies and breeding program established under the Expanded Gaming Act of 2011 will continue in their present form.

Page 30 —

[Purse and breeder incentives] will likely increase the share of Massachusetts horses racing at the new track. We use the conservative estimate that 400 active horses (or half of the assumed 800 horses on-site) will be from Massachusetts. In time, we expect an even larger share of horses racing at the new racetrack will be from in state …

So, a conventional track (aside: if you’re building a new racetrack “designed for the safest possible racing of Thoroughbred horses,” shouldn’t the main track be a turf course?), with a smaller grandstand (realistic) and a lot of Mass-bred racing supported by Race Horse Development Fund-subsidized purses.

This is an underwhelming vision, and that matters because Massachusetts racing and breeding is not isolated from the larger national market, and because financing the horse park development will depend on bonds backed by the state’s Race Horse Development Fund (legislation pending). There’s compelling public interest, in other words, in proposing a racetrack that reaches for the highest level, in the same way that the proposal does for the equestrian center, described in the report as “a first-class facility,” “capable of hosting elite national events.” Modeled on the Virginia Horse Center and Kentucky Horse Park, it’s supported by a Rolex Kentucky case study.

No racetrack case study is included in the report. There isn’t even an aspirational mention of an elite track such as Keeneland or Saratoga — although, as models, both have something to offer a new track proposal, particularly in what they do to draw spectators (one of the goals of the horse park) and to support state breeding programs and horse sales (another goal).

I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m down on the NEHBPA proposal — it’s interesting and full of potential, especially for drawing together equestrian and racing interests. But it’s an odd thing to read a study promoting a horse park for the good of horse racing (and breeding and jobs) that makes you wonder — why is there horse racing? And gives you the answer — because that’s the mechanism for accessing Race Horse Development Fund money. Horses race because the RDF pays, the RDF pays to keep horses racing. There’s no customer, no horseplayer, and no fan or handle growth in that perfect little circle of horsemen and state money. It’s not enough.

One other note about the study — page 30 discusses the sale of Mass-breds, and projects that out of the increased crop:

… the remaining 10 percent of foals are sold out-of-state at the national average auction price. Over the past three years, the average sale price from two-year old horses was approximately $70,000 per horse according to statistics from the U.S. Jockey Club. Thus, we include an addition $805,000 per year for expanded out-of-state horse sales.

Average prices being skewed by the market’s top end, the median price may be a better measure of how Mass-breds might do at auction. For 2-year-old horses in the past three years, the median has run around $31,000-$32,000, which would equal approximately $364,205 in expanded out-of-state sales.

1:15 PM Addition: Pedigree and sales expert Sid Fernando tweeted* about the sales assumptions in the study, adding some context to the discussion:

using a 2yo sale for projecting sales is not realistic. A yearling sale should be used, because 2yo sales are specialist events.

no one, in other words, breeds horses to sell at 2yo sales. Sellers of 2yos are usually second owners of horses.

usually state programs stimulate capital expenditure (buying stallions) by creating sire awards as adjunct to breeder awards…

…this, in turn, means more stud farms, more mares and more foals. State-bred foals are not typically commercial and have most…

…to horsemen in those programs because they race in restricted races. This stimulates local industry, for sure, but not…

…necessarily quality of horses produced because they are mostly the produce of local stallions. I think authors of paper didn’t

…have enough expertise to explain the mechanisms of all of this, good and bad, real and perceived.

economic impact to state must also capture amount of time mares are in state, for example. If a mare is sent to KY to be bred and

and returns by October, say, to qualify her resulting foal as MA-bred, that’s a mare 5 months out of state vs a mare bred to …

…local stallion. That’s why states incentivize local stallions, to keep mares in state.

He also pointed out:

btw, one area where [the study authors] underestimated economic impact: they said extra 115 foals would mean extra 115 mares, but in state …

programs fertility rates are about 50-55%, so need to effectively double mares to get 115 foals.

Additional mares would boost the estimated job and farm spending figures.

*Fernando’s account is private. He gave permission to quote the tweets above.

Back to the Downs

The field coming around the clubhouse turn on the Suffolk Downs turf course
Rounding the clubhouse turn in race eight on Saturday.

It was a weekend of familiar names and familiar faces (and a familiar voice in the announcer’s booth), but you couldn’t call the first two days of racing this year at Suffolk Downs dull — not with three state-bred stakes and a bridge jumper and a horse running off (just to start).

“It feels so good to be back and see how excited the fans are. After all, no matter where you go, your roots are your roots,” Tammi Piermarini told the Daily Item. The jockey was at Suffolk with a broken nose — which she told the Boston Globe she set herself after an accident at Finger Lakes — this weekend.

Piermarini began Saturday well, with a 15 3/4 length win aboard 1-9 favorite Dr. Blarney in the day’s first flat race, the African Prince Stakes for Mass-breds. The track’s four-time leading rider got her second win of the weekend in Sunday’s fourth race with Cotton Pickin. Later that afternoon, she rode Miss Wilby in the Isadorable Stakes. More than $30,000 in a $34,000 show pool was wagered on the 4-year-old filly, a winner of three state-bred stakes at Suffolk in 2015 and a stakes winner at Gulfstream earlier this year. She and Piermarini finished fourth, triggering show payouts of $8.80 on back-to-back Isadorable winner Navy Nurse, $21.20 on runner-up Chasing Blue, and a whopping $84.20 on third-place finisher Lucky Sociano.

Sunday’s other Mass-bred stakes, the Rise Jim, went to Silk Spinner, who rushed up late to catch 2015 Rise Jim winner Worth the Worry by a neck. The finish wasn’t all that was dramatic about the race — rider Dyn Panell’s mount Im Kwik was a late scratch after the 6-year-old gelding ran off in the post parade, circling the track twice before tiring. “Pull the chute,” someone in the crowd shouted at the jockey as he tried to pull up his speeding horse.

The jockey who had the best weekend was Pedro Cotto, winner of five races, including Saturday’s feature, the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash. Forest Funds, entered off a second in a stakes at Monmouth Park last month, opened up in the stretch to win the turf sprint by 1 3/4 lengths over Harp N Halo, paying $9. Favorite Ruby Notion, making her first start since a 13th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf last October, was fourth.

There was a touching scene in the winner’s circle after the race, as trainer Bobby Raymond presented the Jellison Memorial trophy to Cotto and winning trainer Jorge Navarro, surrounded by several members of Suffolk’s jockey colony. The race was named to honor the late rider, at one time the leading active female jockey, who got her start in New England with Raymond in the 1980s and died of breast cancer in July 2015. Everyone agreed, Jellison would have approved of Cotto and and Forest Funds’ run — coming from off the pace with a late kick was how she liked to win.

Photos from the weekend:

The hurdlers pass by the first time
The field for the first race on Saturday, a 2 1/16 mile maiden hurdle, passes through the stretch for the first time. Silver Lime, a 7-year-old gelding, suffered a catastrophic right hind leg fracture going over the ninth, and final, jump. Reporter, ridden by Kieran Norris, won the race.

Maggiesfreuddnslip in the paddock
Maggiesfreuddnslip in the paddock before Saturday’s feature race, the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash. The 6-year-old mare finished third in the turf sprint.

Forest Funds wins the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash
Forest Funds and jockey Pedro Cotto win the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash.

Presenting the trophy for the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash
Trainer Bobby Raymond presents the trophy for the Jill Jellison Memorial Dash.

Take It Inside
Piermarini had trouble getting Take It Inside to leave the paddock before Sunday’s fifth. She and the outrider ended up backing the mare out to the track after Take It Inside refused to otherwise walk down the ramp.

Navy Nurse in the post parade for the Isadorable Stakes
Navy Nurse and rider David Amiss on track for the Isadorable. The 2015 winner came back to win again this year, paying $8.60 as the second favorite.

Dancetrack and Chris DeCarlo gallop back after winning the ninth race on Sunday
Chris DeCarlo and Dancetrack, trained by Bill Mott and owned by Juddmonte, gallop back after winning the ninth race at Suffolk Downs on Sunday.

Walking over for the last race of the weekend
Simply Mas walks over for the Rise Jim Stakes on Sunday.

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