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Jim Murray

A Jolly Good Show--Place and Win, Too

May 23, 1986|JIM MURRAY

In this country, a horse trainer has been this kind of guy: he wears this ten-gallon hat, cowboy boots and string tie. He rolls his own cigarettes, sleeps on a bedroll, drinks coffee from a can and he learned all you have to know about horses by living with them, cutting cows with them or stringing barbed wire. He learned they were the most backward of God's creatures, next to the people who bet on them.

He learned about training horses in border tracks where the roof leaked and you slept with your wallet in your hand and if you had a good horse you worked him before daylight so word wouldn't get out and you waited till you got a price before you let him really run. And if you had a bad horse you stood him in a tub of ice till race day and learned how to wrap him so he wouldn't limp in the post parade.

That's how you became a trainer. You got so you could think like a horse, maybe even look like one. You could plate your own horses, rub 'em, walk 'em and you could tell by looking at them if they could run any. You were part-Wyatt Earp, part-David Harum and part-carnie and you never tipped your hand. For you, "Nope," was an oration. You would have tried to hide Man o' War for a killing at the windows. You might have had three years of formal schooling, but you knew 100 years worth of tricks around a race track.

Then there's John H. M. Gosden. He never rode herd or strung wire in his life. He never had to sleep on a bed of straw or van a string of sore horses through a series of leaky-roof ovals in the Ozarks.

He comes from a place where they chase foxes on horses, in top hats and red coats. He's no grade-school dropout, he's a graduate of Cambridge University, for crying out loud. That's Harvard-times-two or Stanford-squared as an institution and it's more accustomed to turning out MP's and PM's than it is guys who work a backstretch.

He trains the kind of horses that win silver cups and Eclipse Awards, not $2,000 claimers.

American racing is as different from English racing as shepherd's pie is from pizza or Westminster Abbey from Yankee Stadium. They run clockwise over there and on grass and soft ground. It's not a wheel, it's a social. Bookmaking is not only legal, it's honorable, and the horses aren't the only ones with blue blood in their veins, the owners not only know who their fathers were but who their great-great-great grandfathers were.

Finding a horse trainer from Cambridge is a little like finding a prizefight manager from Harvard. It's possible--but hardly a trend.

A horse, of course, is a horse. But he has all the best of it in England, where, Gosden points out, he is not sequestered at a race track in a big city but is reared in a setting more conducive to peace of mind, like rustic estates of social training centers where grass grows and trees shade.

Horses in America live a claustrophobic, tenement existence where 2,000 of them will be jammed together in shed rows around an overused track on which they must both train and run. The modern trainer does not run before dawn to fool the clockers but to get on the track before it is all chewed up and pounded down by a thousand other hoofs.

The conditions so depleted American stock that it was common up to a decade ago for American horsemen to prowl the auction blocks of England and Ireland to replenish the waning bloodstocks of American racing with the great sires of Europe such as Ribot, Nasrullah, Noor and Khaled. But about 10 years ago, the process was reversed when British and Arab breeding interests began to show up at the Kentucky sales, where an oil sheik paid $10 million for a foal from the American stallion, Northern Dancer, and a British bookmaker spend $35 million for 23 American yearlings.

This practice of cross-pollination has dramatically blurred the distinctions between the two forms of racing. But a lot of American horsemen were startled this year when an invader from Britain, Bold Arrangement, very nearly made off with America's most prestigious race. Invaders from abroad are supposed to take some time to get acclimated not only to the water, but to the ghetto-like existence of their American counterparts. Bold Arrangement's connections solved the water problem by bringing their horse Guinness' stout to drink. No one noticed if he started to sing "We'll Meet Again" after the third one or if they brought the dart board along, too, but he scared the hell out of the hardboots in the stretch.

Gosden was the least surprised man in Kentucky, where he went with a no-chance shadow-jumper named Zabaleta. Gosden has been winning races in this country with European-breds, and American-breds, so regularly that he is the leading trainer at Hollywood Park at the moment with 9 wins, 10 seconds and 4 thirds in 38 races, an in-the-money percentage of an astonishing 60.5%. In 11 stakes races, he has won three and been second five times.

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