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Tested Hand at Claiming Joins Game in Maryland

February 05, 1989|ANDREW BEYER | The Washington Post

For trainers who deal with claiming horses, some of the toughest competition in the country has traditionally been found in Maryland.

The circuit has produced such brilliant practitioners of the claiming game as Bud Delp, Dick Dutrow and King Leatherbury. Their art requires not only the skills of a horseman but of a poker player, for it takes strategy, guts and bluffing ability to be a good wheeler-dealer with cheap horses.

Over the years, many capable horsemen have tried and failed to break into the game in Maryland. But now a formidable new player has joined the game, pushed a big stack of chips in front of him and declared that he is not going to be intimidated.

"I was the king of New England years ago," said Bob Klesaris. "In New Jersey I was dominant for years. I don't fear moving to Maryland. I'll play the game as tough as anybody."

Racing fans at all the tracks where Klesaris operates can attest that he is one of the most astute members of his profession. Virtually every horse he puts on the track deserves respect, and over the years he has won with one of every four horses he has saddled -- a remarkable record.

Klesaris broke into the sport on the decrepit New England circuit, where it was relatively easy to become a dominant trainer. Six years ago he split his operation and sent a division to New Jersey, and found that he was able to operate effectively on two fronts. He started sending a segment of his stable to Florida during the winter. Then he moved his better horses to New York.

"I hadn't been very familiar with Maryland racing, and I don't have a single Maryland-based owner," Klesaris said. "But the word is out about Maryland racing, and everybody is thinking about Maryland now, because the purse structure is so exceptional."

Laurel's management had expected that the phenomenal increase in purse money would eventually improve the quality of the day-to-day competition, and Klesaris' arrival is evidence of the transformation that is occurring. The trainer said he will send between 15 and 20 horses to Laurel initially, assess the results, and then possibly send an even larger contingent. If his past performances are any guide, he will quickly take his place with Leatherbury, Ron Alfano and Dale Capuano as a major force in Maryland racing.

Like Leatherbury -- a master of this game -- Klesaris frequently operates his stable by remote control, leaving the day-to-day care of the animals to his assistants while he concerns himself with claiming the right horses and entering them in the right spots.

"I tape the races at all the tracks where I run and look for horses I think might be able to improve," Klesaris said. "Maybe I'll see a rider make a mistake, or see a speed horse they haven't tried to take off the pace. Then I pay a lot of attention to what the trainer is doing with a horse. Trainers have patterns, doing certain things with horses at a certain level."

For example, Klesaris will know if another trainer habitually moves a horse up in class after a victory. If one of this trainer's horses wins and runs back at the same level -- or even drops in class -- Klesaris will know to suspect that something is wrong with the animal physically.

Klesaris said he also pays careful attention to the relative strengths of different classes of horses at different tracks. If the $20,000 claiming filly sprinters at Laurel are an exceptionally strong lot, while fillies with the same price tag are relatively weak at Garden State, Klesaris wants to know it so he can claim such horses in Maryland and ship them to New Jersey. "I'll move and transfer my horses constantly."

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