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Win, Place, Snow

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"Who needs your name all over the place?" Gasper, a rubbery-faced but still boyish-looking 56-year-old, demands to know in a reedy, insistent voice not totally removed from his Williamsburg upbringing. "Some guys . . . they have their initials on every stall. On every feed pail. d. wayne lukas, d. wayne lukas . . . over and over . . . it's like they're going to forget who they are. That's not me."

A former union carpenter, Gasper got into racing in 1976 after befriending some trainers who came into the carpet store he was running on Hempstead Turnpike. "I was a gambler, a horse player," he says with typical brusque charm. "You can learn a lot about horses from betting on them. Lose money, you learn." Mostly, Gasper says, "in these cheaper races, you go for spots. You know where the horse can win, understand his limits, don't overmatch him."

This applies to trainers too, Gasper allows. "Look," he says, "I grew up betting at Aqueduct. I'm an Aqueduct guy. I know where I belong. My wife goes to Florida for the winter, but I stay here. Why would I want to go down there where there's too much competition just to get a suntan? I can sit under a lamp. When those heavy-head guys are away, everyone moves up. Here, I can win. I don't have a trust fund -- I have to win to make a living. So what if I'm cold? This is my money time. You don't give up your money time."

People say Gasper is probably the sharpest "claiming trainer" in the history of winter racing (to guard against ringers, horses are entered in graded "claiming races"; if it's a $25,000 claimer, any horse in the race can be bought by another trainer for that price). The only trainer to match Gasper's success rate was the late Oscar Barrera, the eighties king of winter racing, who was known to claim a horse out of a $10,000 race, run him three days later for $100,000, and win. "But Oscar had the juice," Gasper cackles, in reference to the highly ambient track lore that Barrera's horses may have been a little, er, juiced up. Juiceless (or at least legally juiced), one of Gasper's $25,000 claims, the 8-year-old Shoop, has grossed more than $900,000 in earnings. Mr. Sinatra, picked up for $75,000, has won close to $600,000. With his trainer's share of 10 percent, this adds up. Surprisingly, Gasper never spends much time looking at these horses. He'll make a $100,000 claim without ever laying (a close) eye on the animal. "Trainers who stand around rubbing their chins, looking at horses -- they're just trying to impress some owner. This isn't a beauty contest. If it doesn't have a broken leg, you can't tell anything by looking." He slaps his open Racing Form. "I look at this. How they run. That's all that matters."

This said, most people say Moschera wins because his horses are happy, a fact that the trainer attributes to the winter weather. "The humans complain when it's ten degrees in the morning, but the horses think it's fine. They eat better, their coats grow long and sweet, they never get sick. The summer -- when it's 100 or more in the barn, flies all around -- that's what horses don't like . . . The most important thing in winter training is to keep them from breaking down. Don't make them do too much. Some trainers can't sleep at night unless they're working the horses all the time, pounding them on the frozen training track, as if that's going to help. Mostly we jog them around the barn, on soft wood shavings. The horses I have -- they're pros, they've done this before. They don't need me to tell them what to do."


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