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They're Not Sure About His Claims

Scott Lake continues to win, and he has one of the favorites in Shake You Down. But he still has trouble moving up in class.

October 25, 2003|Randy Harvey | Times Staff Writer

He has been the nation's leading trainer three of the last four years. In 2001, he became the second trainer to win more than 400 races in a year. When he finished second last year, he won 399. He's leading the standings again this year and, on his current pace, will soon surpass 400 for the second time.

Wayne Lukas?

Bobby Frankel?

Bob Baffert?

No, Scott Lake.

If you're a casual horse racing fan, you might never have heard of Lake. He never has saddled a winner in a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup race.

That could change today in the $1-million Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita. He trains the morning-line second favorite, Shake You Down at 4-1, despite an unfavorable No. 2 post position in the 13-horse field. Aldebaran, trained by Frankel, is favored at 3-1.

Lake, 38, has had only one Breeders' Cup starter before this year. Thunderello, a 48-1 shot, finished second in last year's Sprint at Arlington Park to Lukas' Orientate.

"We went a lot farther than we ever thought we would last year with Thunderello," Lake said this week at Santa Anita. "I didn't think we'd make it back."

Neither did many of his fellow trainers. Of Lake's 165 horses, he said, two-thirds were claimers. Even Shake You Down. He was claimed by Lake and owner Robert Cole Jr. for $65,000 in March.

Lake's claimers have earned him a considerable number of wins and decent money but little respect among high-profile trainers, except, he said, for Lukas and Shug McGaughey.

"I feel it's my job to stick it to them with my claimer," he said, referring to other trainers.

Lake managed a smile, but it wasn't easy.

He said he has developed a chip on his shoulder since entering the Sprint last year and having "everybody look at me like I was some nut because I was in the race."

Speaking on behalf of himself and other so-called "claiming trainers" who toil in the shadows, he said, "If any of us got the opportunities that [Mark] Hennig, Frankel or Baffert have, we're going to do just as well or better."

Lake, who estimates he drives 130,000 miles a year to and from his barns in Delaware, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, says he would welcome those types of opportunities. Sitting beside his girlfriend, Jennifer, and their 8-week-old daughter, Cora, he said he would prefer to spend more time at home.

"I don't want to have 170 horses for the next 10 years," he said. "I'd be a vegetable."

He thought he might hear from some of the wealthier owners who routinely nominate their horses for the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races after Thunderello's impressive showing at Arlington Park.

Instead, he heard whispers when a rumor spread that Thunderello had tested positive for an illegal drug.

"Before we even had time to get back to New York, I heard the purse was being held," he said.

It wasn't true.

But neither did the rumor help him shake the industry gossip that he fuels his horses with something other than oats and hay, although no one has come forward with any evidence outside of a small number of clenbuterol positives that could have been inadvertent.

"The ideal winning percentage for a trainer would be between 15 and 17%," said Lake, who has won about 23% of his races this year. "If you win more than 15 to 17%, people talk about you. If you win less than that, people talk about you. So stay on an even keel, never win a major stakes race, and you'll never have your name attached to anything."

Shake You Down has won 13 of 33 races, six of eight since Lake claimed him. As for today's race, the trainer said, "If he runs his race, I really can't see him getting beat."

Lake wasn't as positive that a win would improve his stature among trainers.

"I always thought it was by your record that you would be accepted," he said. "Maybe it's not."

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