As befits a winter king, track notables come to Barn 56 to pay Gasper tribute. This morning, Steve Adika, a jockey agent, has arrived in his Lexus. Longtime rep for Eclipse prize winner Mike Smith, Adika, a roundish, jocular Israeli Sephardi with a Sydney Greenstreet squeeze-the-merchandise affect, has picked up the book for 16-year-old Ariel Smith, the current hot "bug" boy, or apprentice rider. "I got Smiths, all kinds Smiths, Smiths from cough drops, vanilla and chocolate Smiths," proclaims the thickly accented Adika, noting that Ariel Smith, son of former New York winter rider Alfredo Smith, is one of the few black jockeys currently at the track. Beyond this, his being a winter bug (apprentices are given valuable weight allowances) taps into perhaps the single most enduring legend of the Aqueduct's inner track. It was here that bug boy Steve Cauthen, "the Kentucky Kid," came out of nowhere to make his name, soon winning the 1978 Triple Crown aboard Affirmed. Gasper is impressed with the young Smith, giving him some of his best horses to ride. Still, he cannot resist hassling the ever-put-upon Adika about the imminent appearance at Aqueduct of another touted bug boy, the teenage Jeremy Beasley, who's been tearing things up in Texas and is represented by Drew Mollica, Adika's rival.
"Drew gave me a case of lobsters," Moschera cajoles. "He gave me cake."
"Gas-per! He might give you cake," Adika frets. "But it is not the good cake! It is day-old cake! Gas-per! You cannot ride this Beas-lee. I beg of you . . . do not to ride this Beas-lee!"
A few hours later, the winds picking up, cold rain slanting in from the north, Gasper, his graying hair slicked back, Nautica jacket zipped tight, is in the utilitarian Aqueduct paddock, saddling Mr. Buffum for the sixth race. Snorting great clouds of breath into the winter mist, Mr. Buffum, 4-year-old offspring of the un-august union between sire Obligato and dam Bitwa, is a typical Gasper success story: Claimed for $35,000 last summer at Saratoga, the horse has won three races in a row, including a $125,000 handicap. Today, as with many of the entries Gasper sends out these days, Mr. Buffum is the chalk, or favorite, first at 6-to-5, then at even money, now hammered down to 4-to-5.
"This horse has speed -- keep him close, go for the lead if it's there, but he doesn't need to be in front," Moschera calmly advises Ariel Smith, who listens attentively. Attired in a royal-blue silk shirt with gray crossing sashes, an electric-blue cap festooned with three pairs of maroon goggles on his head, the diminutive Smith is a riot of Max Ernst psychedelia amid the heathlike murk. It has been a big day for the bug boy; he's ridden two winners already. Plus, he just enrolled at Sewanhaka High in Elmont, Vinny Testaverde's alma mater. He plans on studying hard because even though he's currently "101 pounds, stripped," when you're barely 16, "you never know how big you'll get."
A moment later, Sam the Bugler, who practices Clifford Brown riffs between races and got his job after the previous bugler hit the Pick 6, improvs on a Purcell theme. It's two minutes to post, but hardly any of the hard-core attendees inch closer in expectation. Although they qualify as (scruffy) urban heroes simply for showing up instead of betting at OTB ("Call us degenerates, see if we care," says one player, identifying himself as Anthony the Greek Geek), few winter fans actually ever see a horse run in the flesh. They stay inside, at the Ruffian Teletheatre or in the Sunny Jim Room, and watch the races on TV monitors. In winter, the railbird is extinct at Aqueduct; only a few days ago, when it snowed four inches, the standing area adjacent to
the track was a sheer white expanse, unbroken by a single footprint throughout the entire race card.
Gasper, however, beyond a quick but highly directed visit to the betting window, shuns the indoors, especially the relative plush of the trainer's room. "If the horses are outside, I am outside," he says, sitting under an electric heater with Steve Adika in a clubhouse box.