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.
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:
When I announced Carlos won Trainer of the Week at Suffolk he called me and said "I am the trainer of the century!" https://t.co/O2uGiN22sj
— Larry Collmus (@larrycollmus) January 3, 2017
*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.”
It was with sadness that I read on the New England HBPA website that trainer Mario DeStefano died at age 78 on Saturday, January 10. From his obituary:
Mario began his teaching career at LaSalle Academy in Providence followed by over thirty years as a History teacher, coach and athletic director in the Providence School System. He projected his love of wrestling through his coaching and refereeing in the RI Wrestling Community.
Mario’s love of horses was his greatest source of enjoyment. Since the 1960s he had been involved with thoroughbred racing in the New England area. As an avid horse Owner/Trainer he was well known in RI, at Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park horse communities. He was a past president of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
Mario did not enjoy a reputation around the track as an easy person; I don’t think it’s speaking ill of the dead to say that he could be irascible and morose. But I knew Mario as a teacher, and as a teacher, he was generous and patient.
I met him during the 2004 Suffolk Downs meet, when I was a new racing fan and he had a chestnut gelding named Ascot Doll who I liked. I introduced myself to him in the grandstand one afternoon. “Come by the barn,” he said. I did, the next morning, and the next, and the next, and then he put me to work. The job was hotwalking and the pay was $200 for six days a week, plus lunch on race days. I thought this was a pretty good deal, because I knew almost nothing about horses and wanted to know more.
Mario started me slowly, walking the two quietest of his six horses. He spooled out responsibilities as I grew more comfortable in the barn. Working with Marco, the groom, I learned to mix feed, feel for heat, pick feet, and wrap legs. I learned how to rub a horse, and how to hold my hand against its flank so that I could feel a horse picking up its foot while I wasn’t looking, guarding against a kick. Mario was quick with corrections when necessary, and he was always clear and direct. He answered questions the same way.
He was also a careful observer of horses and humans. “Look at this,” he’d say to me, and point out a subtle sign of soreness in a horse, or a handler being rough. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Mario was that the way to be with a horse was confident and calm, that fear and anger didn’t belong.
He was soft with his horses. Call Me Mr. Vain, a kind, classy gelding and the winningest horse of 2003, was then in Mario’s barn, recovering from a tendon injury. I remember a trainer once telling Mario that he treated Mr. Vain too much like a pet. And one morning, another trainer stopped by to yell that he had to get “rid” of one, because “he’s a rat.” Mario yelled back and chased the guy off. Then he took the so-called rat — Ascot Doll, nursing a bum ankle — out of his stall for his daily walk around the backstretch. My clearest memory of that summer is of the pair of them standing near the gap watching horses train in the rosy morning light, Ascot Doll lazily flicking his ears and tail, Mario’s hands dropped low, the shank hanging loosely from his fingers.
He’ll be missed:
Strait of Dover often wore a quizzical gaze and his cocky personality won over his handlers along the backstretch. He had an unusually large head, so they called him “Potato.”
The 4-year-old 2012 Queen’s Plate winner died of colic on July 14. Robert MacLeod’s account of his final days is heartbreaking.
In a 2011 Kentucky Confidential video, Jeff Krulik and John Scheinman visited the then-oldest living Classic winner at Bonita Farm.
Deputed Testamony won his Classic without racing on Lasix, a point interesting then because patchwork raceday drug regulations were just one of the reasons the 1983 Preakness was dubbed the “Prescription Preakness,” and now, as the Lasix debate reaches another peak.
Copyright © 2000-2017 by Jessica Chapel. All rights reserved.