How did you get into racing? I love asking people that question. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious. The Pons brothers got into racing because of their family. Same with the Bonifaces, Merrymans, Houghtons and so on.
But what about other people who didn’t grow up on a breeding farm or work their summers baling hay for granddad? How did they get into racing? Frequently, the answer revolves around a local racetrack. You know the place – small, inviting, friendly – and all too often these days, closed.
For Kevin Kahkola, who now runs a breaking/training business in South Carolina, it was Detroit Race Course in Michigan. A high-school teacher suggested the horse-crazy kid get a job as a hotwalker, so Kahkola went to the racetrack. Kahkola, who’d never walked a hot horse, used it as a foundation to a career. Malathaat, the top 3-year-old filly of 2021, came through Kahkola’s barn at Camden Training Center.
For Bruce Brown, now a trainer in New York, it was Maryland’s Bowie Racetrack in his hometown. Brown wanted to work on the backside, and went – as you did then – to the track to show his eagerness. The guards made an announcement – as they did then – “Anybody who needs a hotwalker, please come to the stable gate.” Brown’s audition lasted one morning. He was told to come back the next summer. He did, got a job, parlayed it into jobs for John Forbes and Mike Hushion among others. Brown saddled his first runner in 2008. He has a stable of horses on the country’s toughest circuit, won a stakes at Saratoga this summer and is closing in on $23 million in purse earnings.
Bowie played a role for Charlie Bonuccelli, owner of Timonium Juvenile Stakes winner Cynergy’s Star, too. Bonuccelli grew up in the town, became a volunteer fireman and responded to ambulance calls at the racetrack what seemed like “three times a day.” He went back as a fan, learned to bet, started an electrical contracting firm. Now he owns nine racehorses and a broodmare who will have her first foal next year.
Last year, I interviewed Francisco Serrano at trainer Mike Stidham’s barn in Fair Hill. Serrano grew up in Chicago, learned about horses when his sister took riding lessons and got interested. He went to Arlington Park. Though not necessarily small, it’s a great place to get started and Serrano showed up in Stidham’s barn (the trainer had the biggest stable there, and you might as well start at the top). Now Serrano is a trusted assistant, running things the way Stidham wants and helping care for some of the country’s top horses.
Bowie and Detroit closed in 1985 and 1998 respectively. A Michigan kid like Kahkola won’t get a job at DRC. A Bowie kid like Brown or Bonuccelli could always travel to Laurel Park or Pimlico, but might just as well get a different summer job or respond to ambulance calls somewhere else. Arlington, which opened in 1927, appears poised to be closed by owner Churchill Downs Inc. after the 2021 meet. Where will the new version of Serrano work for the summer?
Racing needs all the racetracks it can get. Think about major cities and their relationship to racing – Chicago once had six tracks, the New York area boasted eight or more at various times, California’s Hollywood Park is gone. Boston used to have Suffolk Downs, part of a healthy New England circuit with tracks in Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire. All gone. Regionally, New Jersey tracks Garden State Park and Atlantic City were closed years ago. Maryland lost Bowie and the “fair” tracks other than Timonium.
Think about all the people who were introduced to racing at those places. Now think about all the people who won’t be introduced to racing at those places.
Steve Asmussen spent this summer becoming racing’s all-time leading trainer (9,485 wins and counting) and winning five Grade 1 stakes at Saratoga. He grew up in a racing family, but even he started somewhere. In 1987, at age 21, he took a string to the first season at long-gone Birmingham Turf Club in Alabama. The new track raced from March through November, and of Asmussen’s 167 starts during his second season as a trainer, all but seven came at the track. He won his first stakes there (the second came at Charles Town). His 1988 season focused on starts at Canterbury Park, Remington Park, Sunland Park and River Downs.
Somehow, those tracks are all still open – though none would be considered a major track. And that’s the point. All played a role in making Asmussen a Hall of Famer, in getting him to that big moment at Saratoga this summer. And he knows it.
“If there weren’t smaller racetracks, there wouldn’t have been a me; if there weren’t smaller racetracks, there wouldn’t have been a me,” he said, repeating it for emphasis, during a break in his morning action at Saratoga in September. There wouldn’t have been a lot of people.