Playing the Polar Ponies
On a day not fit for man or beast, Sadie Is a Lady is looking good in the Big A paddock. So are the other nine maiden three-year-old fillies, snorting and prancing through a chilling rain as their owners huddle about and mumble hopefully on their chances in the first race. Sadie, a smallish, brown New York-bred, is seeking to improve on her lackluster debut a few weeks earlierdead last, some 23 lengths back. Here, she seems ready, eager even, although given her 40-1 price, it's obvious few bettors are biting. "Who knows?" says her owner, Stan Ettinger, of Pont Street Stables. "Maybe she'll like the mud."
Ettinger hasn't bet on Sadie and says he won't until she "proves she can run," but that doesn't keep Richie, one of several co-owners, from heading to the windows to wheel her in the daily double. "How do I wind up with 50 bucks on this stupid horse?" he moans. Ettinger shrugs, smilesas the Pont Street syndicate's managing partner, he's good at that. "This is still new to her," he explains. "I don't know if she'll move forward enough to please us [or Richie, anyway], but we're not looking to win. Maybe she can pick up a purse. Even fourth, I'd be happy. At 6 percent [of the $41,000 prize], that'd be $2500, or a month's trainingwhich is great."
Thoroughbreds, of course, aren't born knowing how to handle starting gates, or how to run counterclockwise around an oval, for that matter. It's an odd learning curve. Maiden races, reserved exclusively for previous non-winners, ultimately yield all classes from Secretariat to Stewball. You'd think that by averages every horse would have its day, except for the sobering fact that roughly 50 percent of those that reach the track never winever. "Hey, we had Lucy Does the Hula, and she ran 12 times before winning," says Ettinger. Like movie people cross-referencing old films, horsemen bring up steeds past. While the owner has to be a realist, Sadie seems all right warming up, totally oblivious to a track surface that is something out of day two at Woodstock.
At post time, Sadie accepts the gate and breaks well before veering toward the inside through the slop. She spends most of the remaining five furlongs stuck in sixth place, never makes a move, and hits the finish line a mediocre, mid-pack seventh. After conferring with his mud-splattered jockey, trainer Del Carroll explains that Sadie'd been startled early on by a horse on the outside, which caused her to bang her head on the rail. "She's a little brain-dead to begin with," he says, "but at least she didn't stop dead. There's light at the end of the universe."
Ettinger, meanwhile, now the optimist, assures his partners that their filly's outing was a "great improvement over her firstshe wasn't a lot of lengths back," prompting Richie to quip, "Stan, it wasn't gonna get any worse."
Whoever tagged thoroughbred racing the Sport of Kings couldn't have had Aqueduct Racetrack's winter meet in mind. The acres upon acres of vast empty parking lot, the flocks of seagulls squawking over discarded pizza, the near-abandoned bars and grills, the handfuls of angry railbirds bundled against the freeze as they curse the jocks in a timeworn ritual, the gritty riders themselves leading cheaper mounts through abbreviated post paradesit's a curious picture for a supposedly moneyed game. The cavernous Queens joint was built in 1959 to hold 80,000, which it actually got for a pope visit a few years back. But in mid February, attendance higher than four figures is about as common as finding a Derby prospect in a claiming race. The New York Racing Association's media guide notes that there are 1009 urinals at Aqueduct. On some arctic days, that's got to work out to at least one per patron.
In a gentler era, the New York racing scene shut down every year until spring, as the Whitneys and Vanderbilts took their pastime to sunny climes. While top horses and trainers still winter down south, the seasonal hiatus ended in 1975 with the creation of the Big A's chemically treated winterized inner track. Since then, die-hard bettors have enjoyed year-round action; more recently, they've been joined by thousands of punters across the country who regularly fill NYRA coffers thanks to simulcast satellite hookups (the economic basis for opening the track during wintertime in the first place). But most important for non-blueblooded horsemen like Stan Ettinger, the Big A's big chill offers a chance to thrive while the major outfits are out of town.
"It's a tough game," says the 72-year-old Ettinger, formerly in ladies' accessories. "But this is our lucrative time, when the big stables are gone. In the winter of '99, we were the third leading stable for purses earned per start. We were in the money 85 percent of the timehardly ever missed a check."
Ettinger founded Pont Street back in 1989, with three partners sharing one horse. Since then the syndicate has grown to over 80 partners who split varying percentages of a dozen horseswith Ettinger having a stake in each one. Every equine requires a separate account, starting with a purchase agreement. From that point on, investors may be called on for more fundsfor stable fees, vet costs, etc.or, when fortune knocks, they'll get an occasional payout. When Ettinger talks about being "in the money," he's referring mainly to a succession of second-, third-, fourth-, even fifth-place finishes that allow assorted Pont Streeters to meet expenses or at least keep the bills down. NYRA payouts stretch from first place (60 percent of the purse) down to fifth (3 percent; typically, Sadie's maiden racerestricted to New York-bredsoffered a total purse of $41,000). "I tell potential investors, 'Please don't be looking to make a living,' " Ettinger says. "You break even, you're ahead of the game. As a British sportsman once said, 'Ninety percent of owners lose moneythe rest are lying.' Most of our guys just enjoy themselves."
Rich Bomze, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, calls syndicates such as Pont Street "vital" to the industry, confirming as well that winter racing is essential for smaller stables. "It's an opportunity for weaker horses to get their owners out of the hole while the fancy people are at Gulfstream. These partnerships aren't for the wealthy. They're for the guy who wants to get his feet wet. It's a heckuva way to have a lot of fun. A guy gets in the winner's photo, slaps hands with a jockeyhe's like a pig in shit."
Pont Street spends judiciously on its thoroughbreds, generally avoiding high-end auctions. Most of its buys are from Florida sales in the 40-to-50K range. "Less than that," says Ettinger, "and it's suspect they can ever run in New York; more than that, I don't have the partners." A 5 percent partner might have to cough up a few large initially, followed by calls for training and boarding expenses in the hundreds, as appears likely with Sadie. Conversely, those players lucky enough to have a piece of her more successful stablemate, Tallulah Darling, may be looking at an early rebate.
Two races after Sadie's, Stan and Richie are joined in the paddock by other partners, including a cop, a veterinarian, a fishing captain, and a restaurateur. They're here for Tallulah, a three-year-old who's ground out some 60 thou since her debut in Saratoga last August. With a first, two seconds, and two thirds in but seven races, she already qualifies as a Pont Street earner.
"She looks like she's sleeping," says Richie, warily watching the elegant filly loll through her pre-race paces. "She's a little laid-back," Ettinger agrees, adding that he would "settle for a second." And that's exactly what he gets as Tallulah, under a nice ride from jockey Norberto Arroyo, threatens briefly at the 16th pole before easing in behind the winner. No picture, no hand slap, but as Ettinger gleefully calculates, "we'll take another eight grand." A couple of weeks of frigid cards later, and the well-rested Tallulah will return to the winner's circle for a second time ($25,000: Ka-ching!). Sadie? She'll follow with a regressive and dismal last place, leading Carroll the trainer to deadpan, "I don't think she's a closer."
Trainers generally tolerate owners as a necessary evil. The latter like to come around to the stables to coo and pet their precious charges, while the former have to supply X number of reasons why the nags aren't winning. Through a labyrinth of hot walkers, grooms, exercise boys, trainers, jockeys, and vets, the backstretch and barns are a flurry of early-morning activity where visitors can only get in the wayas such, they're more or less a closed community. According to Ettinger, et al., Carroll's an exception to the normas accommodating as he is brutally honest. "He doesn't treat you like a mushroom," says Tallulah partner Bob Pauls, a city planner. "You know, keep you in the dark and throw a little horseshit on you every once in a while."
Back at the Belmont Racetrack stable area, where Pont Street boards its horses, Carroll patiently works Sadie and the others, as Pauls and Ettinger look on. "She's one tough filly to get anything done with," grunts Carroll atop a stable pony, struggling to get the reticent Sadie headed for the training track. "She's like a kid," laughs Ettinger, who win or lose, remains a proud papa. "Yeah," says Pauls, "and getting them to run in circles is like teaching a cat not to piss on the rug. It's animal training."
Removing his chaps, Carroll admits that the winter meet's been a bit on the downside, and says the toughest thing for a trainer is to keep all the partners upbeat. "It's a cyclical game. We've been lucky in the past, but where we are with Pont Street right now, we've got to pick up some fresh horses. If I folded my tent every time I had a bad season, I'd be a grease monkey."
Meanwhile, Ettinger lovingly pats his beasts without a worry. "Hey, you watch that," he chides Tap the Admiral, a three-year-old maiden who's just taken a nip on his jacket. "You handsome devil you, if you could only run a little." And as for fresh blood, there's always another racehorseright now, a just-arrived, unnamed two-year-old colt: "We're really thrilled about him. He looks great, and he's going to be an earnersometimes you can tell."
And the partners? "Tallulah's people just got a distributionhalf of what they'd put in initiallyso they're happy. For some of the others, it's a hard sell. I know this year hasn't been as good as others, but you can't always have a hit show on Broadway. Most everybody's having a good time, though. Hey, it's a lot more fun than playing the stock market, where there's nothing to watch."
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