Oscar Barrera was laid to rest Monday in a cemetery not far from Belmont Park, and with him was buried the greatest secret in American racing.
In the decade before he died of heart failure at the age of 63, the secret enabled him to work miracles and win millions of dollars. It is doubtful that any trainer, in any country, at any time in the history of the thoroughbred species has performed feats to equal Barrera's. Depending on whether he accomplished them with horsemanship or with chemistry, he either deserved to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame or banished from the sport.
Most people in New York racing -- from the officials who sought evidence of wrongdoing to the bettors who were mystified by his horses' performances -- assumed he deserved the latter.
For most of his life, the Cuban-born Barrera was an inconsequential New York trainer, best known for being the brother of Laz Barrera, who won the Triple Crown with Affirmed. As recently as the early 1980s, Oscar was lucky to win 20 races a year. And then, in mid-1982, the miracles began.
Barrera's horses started improving overnight in a manner that almost defied the laws of nature. He bought a horse named Jenawi who had finished far out of the money 10 straight times and had most recently lost a $7,500 claiming race by 17 lengths. But after only a week in Barrera's care, Jenawi stepped up into a $12,000 claiming race and won with the type of acceleration in the stretch that would soon be dubbed "Oscardrive."
Horses regularly improved this dramatically when Barrera claimed them. And just as remarkable as these transformations was the frequency with which the horses ran. Barrera's horses would go to the post every three to five days.
Yet instead of being burned out by such a grueling schedule, they could sometimes keep performing at this rate for months. With a relatively small stable of cheap horses, Barrera became New York's top race-winning trainer in 1983, the first of four such titles. During one week that year he saddled eight consecutive winners.
Barrera had been scoring most of these successes with moderate claiming horses, but in 1984 his magic reached the upper echelon of the sport. He spent $35,000 to claim a horse named Shifty Sheik, who hadn't won a race all year, and sent him out five days later to score by a dozen lengths, narrowly missing a track record at Saratoga. The next month Barrera entered him in the famed Woodward Stakes against Slew o' Gold, who had been recently syndicated for $12 million. Shifty Sheik led until midstretch, and it took the best horse in America to beat the Barrera magic by a half-length. Oscar Barrera was threatening to make a mockery of the sport.
New York racing officials would spend considerable effort trying to prove that Barrera was drugging his horses illegally. Among fans and horsemen, the trainer was always a prime topic of conversation and speculation: What was Oscar using? It seemed inconceivable that he could perform these feats without taking an illegal edge, but it was also amazing that in the small and gossipy world of the racetrack nobody ever learned his secret.
Barrera did get slapped with one suspension for using an illegal steroid, but the best evidence that he was doing something illicit came when he stopped performing extraordinary feats. From May 1988 through January 1989, New York's once-dominant trainer lost 130 straight races, and he never regained his old touch. Good horsemen don't lose their skills so abruptly; Barrera's supply of his elixir had evidently disappeared -- for reasons that no one has ever understood.
Did Barrera have access to some extraordinary wonder drug? The answer is probably no, because it is almost inconceivable that some super-potent stimulant could exist with only one trainer in America having access to it. A more plausible theory is that Barrera was using some substance known to other members of his profession -- but that he alone knew how to use it effectively.
Even after the magic had disappeared and Barrera had ceased to be a significant factor as a trainer, he had left a permanent mark on New York racing. Most other trainers believed that Barrera was cheating flagrantly, and many of them concluded from his success that crime does pay. For all its pretense of being the great citadel of the sport, New York may have the most drug-ridden racing in America. Implausible trainers regularly emerge from obscurity to perform mini-miracles and, in some cases, to move to the top of the trainer standings. Bettors in New York speak matter-of-factly about "juice trainers," and many are surely alienated by the presumption that so many people in the game are cheating. The proliferation of the juice trainers has driven owners out of the game because they know they can't compete with rivals who possess an unfair edge.
But while many of these presumed cheaters inspire justifiable contempt, Barrera always remained a popular figure in New York. He spoke English poorly, and he always seemed harmlessly ingenuous. He was an ever-present figure in the track clubhouse, always friendly and approachable. And if he was drugging his horses, people respected him for doing it better than any man has ever done before. We will never know the secret of Barrera's success from 1982 to 1988, though if he took any of the juice to his final resting place, he still might be able to come back to tell it to us.