Win, Place, Snow

It is one of the great moments in American sport. On the first Saturday in May, as the first potential champion steps upon the hallowed race course, the band strikes up “My Old Kentucky Home.” Then 100,000 people, their mint juleps raised in tribute, sing along and there’s not a dry eye in the place, even among the frat boys. But this was not the first Saturday in May. It was the second Friday in January, and Churchill Downs’ fabled twin spires were replaced by a windswept vista of the Kennedy airport long-term-parking lot beyond the cyclone fence of Aqueduct Race Track, in South Ozone Park, Queens. And when the hoof of the first decided non-champion touched the Big A’s winterized “inner dirt track,” a man named Delroy, a night watchman of the Rastafarian faith, one of the 3,000 or so hard-core horse players to show up on this snowy, sub-freezing day, broke into song.

“Play that funky music, white boy!” Delroy sang, his lone, gloom-cutting falsetto calculated to spur on C. C. Lopez, rider of one Red Hunt, a 22-to-1 shot who was making his racetrack debut. It didn’t help. Moments later, icicles hanging from his dreadlocks, Delroy stood squinting into the cold mist, trying to make out which of the late-arriving horses was Red Hunt, 0-for-1 lifetime.

It is unlikely that the seventeenth-century English aristocracy had Aqueduct winter racing in mind when they imported those three Arabian, Turk, and Barb stallions – stock from which all Thoroughbreds are said to be descended. Begun in the mid-1970s to keep gambling tax dollars pumping year-round, winter racing has long provided a handy metaphor for the 50-odd-year decline of the erstwhile Sport of Kings. Indeed, with its slew of six-furlong races, its bowls of clamless clam chowder ladled out from steaming steel vats, and the same daily “faces” – Rastas, Chinese waiters, Korean War vets on disability, etc. – serial plunging at the $2-exacta windows, Aqueduct seems a perfect spot to divest one last grubstake before tottering off this mortal coil.

This is especially true when the heavy weather’s rolling in off North Conduit Avenue, as it was so often early this year, when several dates were canceled because of unmerciful cold, rain, and snow. Even on so-called good days, “it’s unbelievable,” says the aforementioned jockey Lopez, a genial soul who has been piloting bloodline-deficient nags around the inner track for the better part of a decade. “You’re out there in nothing but a leotard and a T-shirt. Your hands freeze, your feet freeze, your face freezes. The horse is going 40 miles an hour into a gale – what’s the wind-chill on that?”

Given this general mise-en-scène, it is no wonder that Aqueduct and its quick-drying inner track (a tight-turned “bullring” notable for outrageous bias toward front-running “speed” horses) are almost universally eschewed by racing’s fancier element. You won’t find society owners like the Phippes, swank trainers like Bill Mott and Shug McGaughey, or top jocks like Jerry Bailey, Pat Day, and José Santos saddling paragons like Skip Away or Silver Charm amid the howling winds of the Aqueduct paddock. Most of these “connections” leave New York in November, choosing to pass the winter amid the more copacetic surroundings of Florida’s Gulfstream Park or Santa Anita Park out in California. But no matter. There’s a kind of purity at the Big A in winter, a monkish singularity of purpose. It is a prole-bound pre-TV world, full of arcane etiquette and schematized ways to wisdom.

“When the fat cats are away, the mice will play,” Gasper Moschera says, standing in front of barn No. 56 on the nearby Belmont Park “backside” (take a right off Ruffian Road, to Seattle Slew Avenue, then onto Assault Road). It’s six o’clock on a wretched winter morning; the roosters are screeching as if in pain, but Gasper’s already on his second cup of coffee, just as he is every day, seven predawns per week. Horse trainers, the auteurs of the sport, usually hang shingles with their names (often gold-leafed) on the barns where their charges are stabled. But Gasper, who has won more races in New York than any other trainer for each of the past six years and who is generally known as the king of winter racing, puts on no such airs.

“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.”

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.

Meanwhile, Mr. Buffum, 3-to-5 in the final tote flash, is in trouble. Hurried to the lead by jockey Smith, the horse is tired and soon fades into the pack, much to Gasper’s dismay. “Why didn’t he take back? This horse takes back. I told him that!” the trainer screams at Steve Adika, who squirms in his plastic chair. “Blame me! I made a mistake with this kid!” Gasper continues to boom, witheringly. “I was an idiot to put this kid on this horse.”

Steve Adika pleads his case. He’s already bolted inside to watch the replay and bids Gasper to do the same. “The replay, Gas-per! Watch the replay – you will see, it is nothing like you think you have seen with your own eyes! There was no mistake – my rider made no mistake … Gas-per! If I am wrong, I will pay you the money from the bet myself!”

But Gasper is unrelenting; freezing rain pelting his forehead, he keeps his back turned, staring at the flock of seagulls squawking in the late-afternoon darkness at the track’s near turn.

Later, told that Adika has said Mr. Buffum was “due to lose anyway,” that former $35,000 claimers just don’t win four in a row, and that furthermore, when the horse runs again, “Gasper will put Ariel right back on him,” Moschera allows a half-smile to crease his well-practiced poker face.

“He’s right, of course,” Gasper says. “The kid’s a natural. Look, it’s a horse race. If I win 20 percent of the time, I’m a genius. But I’m not telling him that, not now.” Then, buttoning up, the trainer shrugs and announces that “tomorrow is another day,” one more racetrack cliché that is always true, except during winter racing, since, because of ice and snow, the next two days turn out to be canceled.

More than likely the cancellations are just fine for Mr. Loon, a fortyish man from Taipei, Taiwan, currently in the employ of a seafood restaurant on Main Street in Flushing. “Every day, I say, ‘Today I will not come here,’ but then I come,” Mr. Loon says, tearing up tickets representing wagers he’s made on Mr. Buffum and others. The shreds are caught in the thermals off Jamaica Bay and rise into the leaden sky. “Summer or winter, no different,” Mr. Loon says. “Money just flies away.”

Win, Place, Snow