Lifestyles

The ups and downs of haltering racehorses

Tom Slater May 14 1979
Lifestyles

The ups and downs of haltering racehorses

Tom Slater May 14 1979

The ups and downs of haltering racehorses

Lifestyles

As a hobby, it has stamp collecting beat from here to the wall. After all, stamp owners don’t bother crawling out of bed at 5 a.m. to watch them gallop. And stamps certainly don’t have ears to scratch or necks to pat. But stamps also don’t eat, sulk, get colicky or go lame. Horses do—especially thoroughbreds, those finely tuned, touchy, temperamental, lovable racing machines bred to hopes and dreams but more likely to produce terminal cancer of the wallet. A man, thoughtfully poking at the ice in his drink the other day in the dining room at Toronto’s Greenwood Race Track,

put it all in perspective: “If I win $1 million in the lottery,” he explained, “I’m going to buy a couple of horses and race them until it’s all gone.”

There are plenty of Canadians each year willing to climb aboard the horse hobby. Theo Gardener, race promotion chief at Calgary’s Stampede Park, estimates that 85 per cent of the 1,300 head competing on the Alberta circuit are campaigning for “hobby horse” owners as they are known in the trade—wage earners who prefer gambling $5,000 on an untried runner to plunking $20 into the betting windows. Buying a horse is cheap compared with the $23 to $35 a day trainers charge to stable, feed and teach a horse to race. If the beast gets sick, the owner picks up the veterinarian’s bills. And even wintering a horse

on a farm can cost $150 a month for feed and straw bedding.

“If we didn’t have the little owners, we couldn’t fill a race card,” says Bruce Walker, director of publicity for the Ontario Jockey Club. And in Ontario the

hobby horsemen have to knock around with the rich, powerful runners out of the stables owned by chocolate millionaire Jack Stafford, puck millionaire Conn Smythe and everything millionaire E.P. Taylor (“Empty Pockets,” as the boys in the barns have fondly labelled him).

“You always have the hope,” says Calgary Herald race writer and twohorse owner Pat McMahon, “that if you select your horse with a little expertise and a lot of luck, he’ll be something special. It’s not all in the winning. Much of it is in the anticipation.” For every

race winner, there are an average of nine losers. But once in a while something clicks. Just ask the six Edmonton men who last year formed Eldorado Stables, chipped in $6,500 each and shipped trainer Ed (Goody) Goodwin off to a sale in California to find them some stock. He came back with two fillies and two colts; one a $13,500 rank, ill-tempered, two-year-old named Pole Position, who immediately showed he had all the speed in the world by winning his first two starts. But the

judges took a dim view of Pole Position’s hip checks to other horses on the track and disqualified the would-be Tiger Williams each time. Since then, Pole Position has cleaned up his act. Late last year and this spring he rattled off six wins in a row, including a surprise upset of Kentucky Derby candidate Flying Paster in the $82,000 San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita in California, and the Eldorado boys have a $110,000 gold mine on their hands.

Gary Oswald, 37, Barry Jackson, 35, Fritz Braun, 57, and Bob Sauer, 42, are partners in Wespac Meat Processing, an

Edmonton packing plant. Their Eldorado stablemates are Fred Stabel, 49, a painting contractor, and Ernie Flato, 50, an electrical contractor. For Flato, it’s his first fling with a horse. “I had only been to the races once in my life before we got Pole Position,” Flato says. Now he admits that his wife, Ingelore, and three daughters are accusing him of spending too much time with the horses. He has only missed one Pole Position race, having managed to visit the winner’s circle in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Los Angeles. “And it’s very doubtful now whether we’ll ever

bring Pole Position back to Alberta,” Flato says. “They go for too much money in the States to pass up, and as a California-bred he’s not eligible for the major Canadian races.”

As a two-year-old, Pole Position was so mean that exercise riders and grooms at Edmonton’s Northlands Park refused to go near him. Now he’s such a contender that, despite two drubbings in recent California stakes races, the partners are considering entering him in the Preakness and Belmont, two legs of the American Triple Crown, and they have turned down an offer of more than $500,000 for the horse. “We went into the deal saying we could each afford to lose $10,000,” Flato says. “But even when the horse was going bad, our trainer told us to stick with it. We’ve been lucky. We’ve got money in the bank.”

Luck. Peter Mosakos, a 37-year-old Toronto public-school teacher admits to having had his share—good and badin the 10 years he’s been at the game. Two weeks ago, he had a filly claimed from him for $12,500, the same price he had paid. “It cost me a month’s training bills, about $700, plus a $40 jockey’s fee,” Mosakos says. In order to equalize the calibre of racing, many horses are given a value (claiming price) by the owner or trainer. The horse then races against horses of the same price. The catch is that if someone else wants the horse it can be taken by putting up the claiming price before the race. Claiming is racing’s lifeblood for small owners, allowing them to get into the sport by buying a proven racehorse rather than putting money on untried yearlings or two-year-olds. And the major stables don’t fool with many cheap claimers.

Mosakos figures that he puts out $8,000 a year to keep a one-horse stable. The bills are being paid by a five-yearold mare named Silk and Wrapper that Mosakos bought “for under $5,000” two years ago and has steadily won some $36,000 since moving up in class from the $3,000 claimer level. As a teacher, Mosakos rarely gets to see his horse race. Instead, he rises early in the morning, drives out to the track to check on his horse, talks to the trainer and then heads off to school. “I usually find out how the horse did by listening to the radio,” he says. “That’s kind of frustrating.” He and wife Barbara have an 18-month-old son, Jamie, so weekends at the track are also a thing of the past.

“I’ve got about 23 photos of my horse in the winner’s circle,” says Mosakos, “and I’m only in five of the pictures.” There are some 5,000 small owners in Canada wishing they had the same complaint. Tom Slater