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.”
Aqueduct is on hiatus, Santa Anita doesn’t open until December 26, and Eclipse voters are taking to Twitter to talk about their ballots. It’s the perfect time, in other words, to give one last glance back at 2016 and catch up on any reading about racing that you might have missed. The links below are to some of my favorite, and some of the best, turf writing this year.
Start with John Cherwa’s story in the Los Angeles Times about the 50th anniversary of jockey Johnny Longden’s retirement. His last ride was a winner: “It took them 30 minutes to put up the sign, it was almost a dead heat.”
What happened to Shergar? Milton Toby revisited the unsolved kidnapping for Blood-Horse. (The horse’s rider Walter Swinburn died this month at 55.)
Carly Kaiser went to Eagle Rock Downs in March. Click for the photos.
When Pat Mahoney retired from NYRA, it was the end of an 111-family history in tote wagering. “We managed the money at 11 of the 36 Triple Crown champion races,” Mahony said. “We were in the betting rings year in, year out through world wars and the Depression. That is something to be proud of.” Joe Drape tells the Mahoney family story in the New York Times.
Drape’s biography of the 2015 Triple Crown winner came out in the spring. “American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner’s Legendary Rise” ends the year on the longlist for the PEN/ESPN award for sports writing.
Speaking of American Pharoah, Monte Reel of Bloomberg visited Ashford for the start of his stud career and Bob Ehalt wrote a behind-the-scenes story about tensions in the Pharoah camp for Thoroughbred Racing Commentary:
“He knows he’s coming to the end of his career and wanted to cash in and I could understand that. He just didn’t know where to draw the line. He wanted a patch on every inch of his body. On Dancing with the Stars they dressed him like they were making fun of him. I was worried they were treating him like a circus act and they would shoot him out of a cannon, and I needed him to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”
“I am so devastated and disappointed that my crew could not get me a win over there this year … I had four trainers trying to get a win. I have given them strict instructions: Either you get me a win at Royal Ascot, or you can find your happiness someplace else.”
Why people handicap, why people bet — Eric Banks meditated on horses, luck, and playing the races for Lapham’s Quarterly:
But what a strange skill to have, and how long the apprenticeship! I have been at it as a handicapper with varying levels of seriousness and success for most of my adult life. It was more than twenty-five years ago that I first started going to the track and began to think that there was some rational way to order the raft of digitized information that every horseplayer grapples with in any track program or the pages of the Daily Racing Form, and I still happily devote an inordinately large amount of my time to following and betting the horses. There’s nothing particularly original about my autobiography: I’ve had some terrific scores, and I’ve had long fallow periods where nothing worked. I’m not a really large bettor, and I’ve had both exceptionally good days and alarmingly awful ones. I’ve hit bets that paid in the very low five figures; I also once blew through a $5,000 bankroll in a couple of weekends betting at small racetracks in Iowa and Oklahoma, figuring wrongly that I was a sharper player than the rubes and rustics who followed those races. But one of the remarkable things about gambling on horses is that losing leads more to humility than to disillusionment.
Everyone loves a gray, but what do you know about the gray Thoroughbred genetics? Andrew Caulfield traced “the often precarious grey line” that runs more than two centuries from Master Robert to The Tetrarch to Tapit in TDN.
Tony Leonard’s photo collection was almost lost. For the Paulick Report, Natalie Voss wrote about the ongoing work of scanning and cataloging the racing photographer’s historic, decade-spanning collection of negatives and prints: “This is really cool right now, but I think it’ll be even more cool in another 50 years or 100 years,” said Shiflet. “This will be an interesting collection years and years after I’m gone.”
Some familiar names signed off in 2016. Dosage creator Steve Roman didn’t hold back in his farewell, posted to his website:
Suffice it to say that my perception of a decline in the quality and diversity of American Thoroughbred racing along with the industry’s continual (and, I believe, intentional) inability to deal effectively with the abusive nature of the game has taken its toll. American racing’s ongoing decline is real and I am not alone in this view.
Steven Crist formally retired in July. Mike Watchmaker wrote an appreciation for his career, which included stints at the New York Times and NYRA, the founding of the Racing Times, and a revival of the Daily Racing Form:
… where Crist really left an indelible mark was in matters concerning the horseplayer, enriching our experiences in ways you might not be aware of, or have imagined. And this holds true no matter which way you engage in racing this weekend, whether it be at the track, or at a simulcast facility, or betting in your underwear from your living room.
Andrew Beyer retired too, and he really seems to be enjoying himself.
Suffolk Downs continued to hold on, running six days this year, inspiring Watchmaker to revisit memories of the New England circuit that used to be:
Suffolk was referred to as the “Oceanside Oval,” which I guess it technically is, but it was never to be confused with Del Mar. The old Rockingham was called the “Saratoga of New England.” The Rockingham Park prior to the 1980 blaze that took it down was really very nice, but it wasn’t Saratoga. And I never had a vivid enough of an imagination to picture Narragansett as host of the famous match race between Alsab and Whirlaway, but it was. Nevertheless, these were great old places.
The very first day I received my driver’s license, I commandeered by dad’s car and drove to the Brockton Fair to play the card. And I was there with my dad the last day Berkshire Downs, which at one time claimed Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as part owners, ever raced. It had to be the last day. There was a giant sinkhole on the track apron that appeared to be expanding so quickly that, given another day, it might have claimed the actual grandstand.
Rockingham Park was sold for redevelopment, closing for good in August. Paul Daley captured the nostaglia of those who passed through the old track.
We’re not saying goodbye to California Chrome just yet — following his win in the Los Alamitos Winter Challenge on Saturday, he ships to Gulfstream for the Pegasus World Cup next month. But Tim Layden has written the best profile yet of the likely 2016 Horse of the Year, telling the story of his connections and unlikely career for Sports Illustrated on the eve of the Breeders’ Cup.
More good stuff: Chris Rossi (@o_crunk) wrote about racing data. Eliza McGraw, author of “Here Comes Exterminator!,” wrote about early women jockeys, Joan Pratt, and Joyce Goldschmidt for Raceday 360. (Who? Read the stories.) Finally, take 20 minutes to enjoy this ESPN short film about Haru Urara, the 0-113 racehorse who became a phenomenon in Japan, and be inspired by this 43-year-old apprentice jockey at Turf Paradise.
12/22/16 Update: Published too early and missed out on T.D. Thornton’s marvelous remembrance of neighborhood bookies in TDN:
By age 12, I knew that at funerals among members of our small town’s gambling community, the most elaborate flower arrangements were always sent by the neighborhood bookies. I also knew that at Christmas, if you were a longtime customer, betting debts were likely to be forgiven. This holiday courtesy was extended not so much out of seasonal cheer and joy, but because it made good marketing sense–Gus and the other bookies were quite confident they’d rake it all back, and more, once football playoffs started.
I also neglected to mention Holly’s Kruse’s insightful “Off-Track and Online: The Networked Spaces of Horse Racing,” which covers the social, cultural, and technical aspects of wagering and how those intersect in public and online spaces. I talked to Kruse about her book in June.
See you in 2017 — happy new year!
Breeders’ Cup 2016 is here! And I have links: First, to the big HANA Monthly Breeders’ Cup issue (PDF). Stats, Q&As, and my Distaff pick (clue in the photo above). Then, to the Hello Race Fans BC Friday picks grid. Look for HD replays of every BC race on the 2016 Breeders’ Cup YouTube playlist. Replays should be up within minutes after each race.
11/5/16 Update: And Breeders’ Cup Saturday picks are up.
I loved this moment so much that I had to GIF it:
Lady Eli enters the Belmont winner’s circle to applause after the Flower Bowl — the champion’s second start back after beating laminitis. “It takes such a rare horse to overcome what she has,” said trainer Chad Brown. “I think she’s one of the all-time great turf mares.” It’s onward to the Breeders’ Cup.
Copyright © 2000-2017 by Jessica Chapel. All rights reserved.