Recently retired Horse of the Year Tiznow, considered a hard-hitting runner, raced 15 times in a two-year career.
That’s delicate compared to generations ago when thoroughbreds would race 20 times or more during a single campaign.
The greatest of his era and one of the best of all-time was Citation, the Triple Crown winner, handicap champion and Horse of the Year in 1948. The legendary Calumet Farm standard-bearer ran 20 times as a 3-year-old, winning 19. In a career of three seasons, he raced 45 times, winning 32, finishing second 10 times and third twice en route to becoming racing’s first $1 million money earner at $1,085,760.
Times and training philosophies have changed in six decades, but one thing has not: horses are born to run.
One man who adheres to that theory is Barry Abrams, who has been training thoroughbreds since 1993. Before that, he was a successful conditioner of standardbreds. One of them, Guts, won nearly $2 million in 1984.
Abrams doesn’t give a second thought to running a thoroughbred back on a week’s notice. While he may be a racing secretary’s dream-come-true, early on, the 47-year-old native of Minsk, Russia, was fair game for members of the media, who were liberal with their verbal brickbats for his modus operandi.
But once his program proved successful, faultfinding abated. In the spring and summer of 1998, Abrams won with 12 of 78 starters at Hollywood Park and 14 of 69 at Del Mar. He won with four of his first 10 starters at Hollywood this meet.
“People have to remember we’re dealing with race horses,” says Abrams, a bear of a man whose physical appearance is sometimes accompanied by a pugnacious presence. “That’s what they’re here for, to race. When a show horse shows four times in a week, no one complains. They don’t say it’s bad for the horse. If I run a horse back in five days, and it runs last, people can criticize me. (But) I think 80 percent of my horses that have run back that quickly have finished one-two-three, so obviously it was a good decision.”
The late H.A. (Jimmy) Jones, who trained Citation, would have been tarred and feathered had Abrams’ critics been around during Citation’s 1948 campaign. It reads like fiction, to wit: Feb. 11, the Seminole Handicap, followed by the Everglades seven days later on Feb. 18; the Flamingo Stakes 11 days later on Feb. 29; the Chesapeake Trial 13 days later on April 12; the Chesapeake Stakes five days later on April 17; the Derby Trial 10 days later on April 27; the Kentucky Derby five days later on May 1; the Preakness 14 days later on May 15; the Jersey Stakes 14 days later on May 29; and the Belmont Stakes 14 days later on June 12. Following the Belmont, Citation got a lengthy three-week break until July 5, when he won the Stars and Stripes Handicap. His only defeat during his remarkable marathon of 10 races in 16 weeks was a second in the Chesapeake Trial.
“Opportunities to race didn’t come along as often years ago,” Abrams said. “There were more horses in training and if you missed a $10,000 claiming race, you’d have to wait a month or five weeks to run again. But now there’s a shortage of horses, and there’s an opportunity to run every week if you want to. Trainers in California are afraid to run that often. But look at small tracks like Finger Lakes, where the same horses run a week apart. It’s not uncommon on circuits like that for horses to run 25-30 times a meet. Many of them are sore horses that shouldn’t be able to stand up.”
It was Abrams’ experience with standardbreds that enabled him to think outside the box with thoroughbreds.
“That took much of my fear of running thoroughbreds frequently,” Abrams said, “because I know horses are durable. If they’re sound and happy, they can do amazing things. In Australia, they run the Melbourne Cup and the Flemington Cup a week apart. One race is two miles, the other two-and-a-half. They’re the two biggest races in Australia, and the same horses come back a week later to run in both races.
“Horses which have just turned three run in our Triple Crown races. They’ve never raced beyond a mile or a mile and a sixteenth, yet they run three times in five weeks and have to ship all over the country. I think four races in a month for an older horse is a lot easier than three races in five weeks for a young 3-year-old.”
Abrams’ most successful thoroughbred was Famous Digger, a
filly he claimed for $40,000. She went on to win the Grade I Del Mar Oaks in
1997 and earned about $1 million. Other major Abrams’ money winners include
Bengal Bay, The Tender Trap and Adminniestrator.
“A lot of people made a lot of money on my horses when
they bet on them racing back in a week or less,” Abrams says. “But I’m not
running them back in a hurry just to run them. I’m running them because
there’s an opportunity for them to win. If I didn’t think they had a chance
to win, I wouldn’t run them.”
Abrams has one dream that’s bigger than he is, and
that’s winning the Kentucky Derby.
“You always hope to have a Derby winner,” Abrams said.
“But I’m not obsessed with it. If it happens, it happens. I’m not pointing
to it, but I’ll have a great horse one day. I’ll have a horse that’s going
to win the Kentucky Derby, maybe even the Triple Crown. I’m still young.
Charlie Whittingham didn’t reach his prime till he was over 50.”
THE HOMESTRETCH: A racing rarity occurred last week:
A horse racing story appeared on the first sports page of the Los Angeles
Times. Of course, it was scandalous, about an event that happened some two
months ago: sponges found in horses’ noses at Santa Anita, allegedly in an
attempt to fix races. The sub-head on the story read: “Sponges Discovered in
Four Horses Point to Apparent Attempt to Fix Races,” followed by some 59
inches of type, not to mention 60 inches of accompanying photographs. It was
interesting reading, considering it was written by the paper’s “beat”
writer for professional soccer . . . Horse to watch: Nuclear Debate from
the Darrell Vienna barn. This 6-year-old gelding made his U.S. debut in the
Hollywood Turf Express, finishing fifth, beaten just 1Â½ lengths after making a
menacing move from far back in the 5Â½-furlong dash. But he was on unfamiliar
terrain. It was Nuclear Debate’s first start on a course with turns. His races
overseas were on straight-aways, including a victory at Ascot under 128 pounds
in a field of 23 runners.