JC / Railbird

New England

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.”

The Rock

Rockingham Park gate in 2006
Rockingham Park gate, 2006

Reflecting on the end of Rockingham Park:

“It’s one of those places, like the house you grew up in, that you think will always be there. It’s so strange and sad to find out that it’s really going to be gone,” said Donna Barton Brothers, who was an apprentice in Rockingham’s jockey colony in 1987 before she went on to become one of the sport’s most successful female riders and an on-air analyst and reporter for NBC Sports and TVG.

“That track was where I cut my teeth as far as riding goes,” she said. “I learned so much about riding there from people like Phil Ernst and Bennie Carrasco and some of those really good, old riders like Carl Gambardella and Rudy Baez, who for whatever reason ended up at Rockingham. I rode with some world class riders.”

Speaking of the greats, old black-and-white photos of Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longdon, and Bill Shoemaker still adorn the walls of Rockingham’s clubhouse from their time here. Pat Day hung his tack in the jocks’ room when he was a bug, and Chris McCarron to this day is revered as the local kid who made good.

Trainer Shug McGaughey won his first race at Rockingham and fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel captured the one and only $500,000 New England Classic with Marquetry in 1991 as part of the nationally televised American Championship Racing Series.

The track, which hasn’t hosted live racing since 2010, will close permanently on August 31, following a sale of its remaining 120 acres. “So the simulcasting, the poker room, the shows will all be done at that point in time,” [general manager Ed] Callahan said. “We’ll get things cleaned up a little bit, have an auction here of a whole bunch of equipment and furniture and memorabilia.” For those concerned about the fate of any remaining historical items or archival materials, note that, per a report in the Blood-Horse:

[T]he racing memorabilia, trophies, and artwork with the greatest historical significance will be donated to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, the New England Sports Museum, and the New Hampshire Museum of History, among others.

The auction is scheduled for September 24 and 25, time TBD.

Way Back, In the 1970s

For $800:

Donnally confessed that he had every intention of finishing out of the money but was having trouble doing so because so many other jockeys were also restraining their horses.

New England racing, the Winter Hill gang, and one jockey’s story.

– – – – – 

Suffolk Downs notes: The Boston Globe profiles developer Richard Fields, “the track’s charismatic public face and largest shareholder” … Andria Terrill has been released from the hospital. The rider suffered three small skull fractures in an on-track accident on July 8 … Multiple stakes-placed Convocation (2nd, 2011 Westchester; 2nd, 2009 Suburban; 2nd, 2009 Dwyer) is entered for a $4,000 tag in the first race on Wednesday. It’s the 7-year-old gelding’s first start since finishing fourth at Belmont on May 9, when Trainer David Jacobson claimed him for $15,000. He’s had three works in the interim, none stellar, and is 9-5 on the morning line. [7/17/13: Convocation scratched.]

The 80-Day Compromise

In every deal, compromises are made. In the agreement made official on Friday between Suffolk Downs and the NEHBPA on the terms for the 2011 and 2012 meets, the track compromised by agreeing to an equal simulcasting revenue split; the horsemen compromised by agreeing to race 80 days.

Just as the split was a significant concession by Suffolk, so the days were for the NEHBPA, which had maintained until late in negotiations that 100 days were the minimum the horsemen could accept, in part to support the Massachusetts breeding program. Last week, the horsemen agreed to the shortened meet, but not to remain neutral on the legislation required to reduce days, a point the board ultimately conceded.

“We only conceded on the dates because from the onset Suffolk Downs made clear it would not run 100 days although state law required it to do so. So our only options were to either concede to Suffolk’s demands or compromise on days,” said NEHBPA counsel Frank Frisoli in an email, replying to the question of how the board had come to agreement on the matter of race dates.

Referring to the bill filed in the Massachusetts legislature that would allow Suffolk to race fewer than 100 days and continue simulcasting, Frisoli said that many on the NEHBPA board believed that if they didn’t agree to run a shorter meet, there would be no live racing at the track this year. It was 80 days or nothing — but the horsemen wanted some protection. “That proposed legislation delegates to the racing commission the right to excuse Suffolk from complying with state law as to the number of racing dates,” said Frisoli. “We advised Suffolk that was a deal killer.”

In exchange for accepting fewer race dates, the NEHBPA negotiated its non-opposition to the bill to apply only to the number of days required for simulcasting. “The NEHBPA will oppose the Petrucelli legislation and any other legislation which does anything more than reduce the minimum number of days to 80 for 2011 and 2012,” said Frisoli.

The terms of the agreement also provides the board with a powerful incentive to respect the neutrality provision in the hard-fought deal. “If any NEHBPA board member or employee takes action to oppose legislation to reduce dates, Suffolk can void the contract in which event the race meet will end,” said Frisoli. “I expect that our board members will comply with the contractual obligation, no matter how personally distasteful it may be to them.”

Frisoli, a horse owner of more than 35 years, said that he would “actively support” the legislation as the NEHBPA counsel. “I [will do what I] can to see that it passes in the belief that Suffolk Downs is entitled to the benefit of its contractual bargain and that the passage of the legislation would actually be of benefit to the NEHBPA in that it will ensure live meets for 2011 and 2012 and improve our relationship with Suffolk Downs.”

Now that the dispute is over, we can all look forward to the return of racing in East Boston. “The NEHBPA is delighted that we were able to reach an agreement,” said Frisoli. So are Massachusetts racing fans.

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