December 31, 2022, 3:38 p.m. Through the glass doors of Laurel Park’s clubhouse into grayness, Dale Capuano beat a mundane path made novel and profound. Beneath a blue canopy, down concrete steps, he headed for the paddock and, beyond that, a world unknown.
To his left, a thickening ground fog carpeted the racetrack, dressed it in disguise as if nature teased the wonder. Forty-two years since he started, Dale Capuano had one last horse to saddle. Where was the fanfare, the news crew, the clutch of well-wishers? There, in a fitful drizzle too warm for the season, the trainer and his moment stood temporarily ignored.
Dale stopped to thumb a text message, eyeglasses cockeyed atop a ball cap, lenses speckled by the rain. He strode again briefly, then spoke without prompting: “Who leaves a barn with 35 horses and 14 yearlings in the pipeline?” The question confirmed that Dale, age 60, had reached the vocational finish line.
The paddock long had served as his examining room and study; in it, he scrutinized the racing Thoroughbred, gauging potential claims (and those to avoid) by inspecting legs and scrawling program notes. There, Dale cinched the girth on Dixie Drawl, gave Carlos Lopez a leg up, hugged paddock judge Mario Verge and affixed a period to his page-turning career. Or might that be a semi-colon?
Trainers of any age rarely retire with good health and a robust stable at full throttle; rarer do they cede it, reinforcements waiting, to an upstart nephew with no formal track record; rarer yet with every horse-owning client pledged to the transition. Dale’s work, his word and his ways had engendered such loyalty when he told his backers that horse-training brother Gary’s son, 29-year-old Phil Capuano, would captain the turn-key operation New Year’s Day.
“I love trainin’ the horses and that part, but I wasn’t gonna train ’em until the day I die,” Dale said after passing the baton. “At some point, I wanted to be in a position where I could retire and do somethin’ else with my life. I didn’t wanna stop because I was down and out, where my business had gone down with only a few horses, and I’m basically floundering.”
Ferris Allen, a trainer five years longer than Dale, explained why he and his peers favor work over rest. “There aren’t many Sandy Koufaxes,” the onetime William & Mary second baseman said of the Dodgers left-hander who left baseball in his prime. Then the nub: “I loved goin’ to the Louvre and lookin’ at the Mona Lisa, and bein’ there when Big Ben went off. But there ain’t nothin’ like winnin’ a race.”
Dale won 3,662 of them.
Before he departed, Dale cornered 89-year-old Hall of Famer King Leatherbury, the Maryland legend with training victories 64 years running. “It wasn’t too long ago I was young and you were old,” Dale told him. “Now I’m old and you’re older.”
Last September, a month before the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic fall yearling sale at Timonium, Dale fortified the track-wide whispers by advising clients of his exit strategy. He’d done their shopping for years, but they needed to know that any new purchases would grow to function under Phil. If they sought someone else to buy and train for them, Dale said, he surely understood.
He added: “I gave ’em all the options, so everything was laid out ahead of time. Everyone stayed on, like it was business as usual. Nothin’ changed.”
He helped the continuity by reassuring Lou Ulman, Neil Glasser, Steve Newby – each more than 30 years a client – and other owners that he’d consult with Phil regularly, especially to begin, and make the 17-mile drive from home to Laurel when needed. Dale’s hallmarks, truthfulness among them, built a sturdy bridge. “Phil’s a lot like I am – a hard worker,” he told them. “He’s honest as the day is long, he’s knowledgeable about horses, and he’s particular about everything. He’s really meticulous.”
Many of the owners knew Phil from his days managing a three-barn, 30-horse string at Delaware Park for Gary (mostly) and Dale, and for his time assisting Dale at Laurel after Delaware’s early November close. Phil said he hopes to harness inspirations from Gary’s smaller, unchanging, high-quality barn that gave wings to 1997 Florida Derby/Wood Memorial winner Captain Bodgit, and Dale’s larger, diverse, claim-fluid stable.
“Hopefully, I can be a little bit of both,” Phil said of his horse-training influences. “But I still gotta be me.”
Dale told his nephew how to handle the new responsibility: “This is your thing. You do it your way.”
It was part torch-passing, part pep talk. And all Capuano.
“Let him know this is how I did A, B and C, and it’s up to you to keep it the same, change it, tweak it, whatever you wanna do,” Dale said. “It’s his barn, not mine.”
Ulman, the former Maryland Racing Commission chairman who moved his first horses to Dale in 1989, gave Phil a vote of confidence by buying alone or in partnership six of the 14 Dale took from the sale last fall.
“I’m very impressed with Phil,” Ulman said. “I think he’s got a great work ethic. He’s learned a heck of a lot from both Dale and Gary. It’s funny: People have said to me, ‘But you’re turning your horses over to a 29-year-old.’ I’m like, ‘I had Dale when he was 27.’ ”
Phil passed his first test. Ulman and Dale had scouted a possible $12,500 claim at Laurel in early January. Phil scanned the horse in the paddock and dialed Ulman, who recounted the exchange. “I don’t know, Lou,” Phil told him. “The horse’s pastern just looks a little funny . . . and I’m just not that comfortable.”
In the background, Ulman said, he heard a trainer (unnamed) tell a client by phone, “The horse looks OK. Let’s go for it.” Ulman related the advisory. Phil restated his position. They passed on a runner that faltered.
By the following Saturday, Phil had burnished his ledger. On Jan. 13, he sent Glasser’s Thunderturtle to Charles Town and drove back with his first training victory. The next day, he dispatched Ulman’s Imagine a Cure in a Laurel Park maiden claimer, the pacesetting chestnut battling to hold with a powerful ride by Jean Alvelo. Three hours later, Newby’s Vance Scholars rallied to win a two-turn allowance.
On a wind-bitten January day between Laurel races, Phil appeared steeled to the challenge and moved by the fidelity. “I gotta give all the credit to the owners . . .” he said, voice catching somewhere between opportunity and expectation, “for them to have the confidence in me. I did have some doubts. Still do, just because of the expectations. There’s pressure.”
In Laurel’s Barn 15, the fledgling trainer succeeded an uncle ranked 22nd all-time in training victories (three behind Dick Dutrow, 12 behind Bud Delp), who led the Maryland circuit eight times in yearly wins, managed 31 meet titles, a record 15 Maryland Million winners, a $20,000 claim turned Grade 2 millionaire, another midrange claim that made the Kentucky Derby and a near-20 percent win rate from 18,686 starts.
“When you start to talk to Dale about his statistics, none of that means anything to him,” said friend and horse owner Bob Haynes, who shared in Dale’s most golden claim, Heros Reward. “To him, those are just numbers on a piece of paper. Other people, they cherish that. What Dale cherished was integrity. He was honest to a fault. He had absolutely no ego. For 42 years he’s done his work very quietly and let the numbers speak for themselves.”
Through it all, Dale maintained the old-school methods he used on his first winner, Who’s Lucky, 1981 at old Bowie Race Course. He left no detail unresolved, applied his craft with a winemaker’s care and a surgeon’s eye, the routine rarely deviating.
“It was his life,” Ulman said. “Not married, doesn’t have children. Most other people couldn’t devote the time that he does.”
For Damon Dilodovico, the way to 800-plus training victories and a graded stakes score with Laki began under Dale on a tip from then-stablehand Mike Geralis. After three years as a U.S. Army communications specialist, Dilodovico said, he discovered peace in Dale’s Bowie barn, and a military discipline through an exacting regimen.
“Dale was such a kind boss, and he was on top o’ things,” Dilodovico said. “Get there, he’s checkin’ horses before we train. He’s checkin’ ’em at the break. He’s checkin’ ’em when we’re done. He went through the barn every day after training – we had 52 stalls there – and was touchin’ every leg . . . He was so driven. It was impressive to watch.”
The magic of pedigree. Nearly a century ago, Dale’s great-grandfather, Philip Caruso, rode a horse through the neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., tied it to a lamppost at 8th and D streets NW and peddled flowers and produce from a pushcart. On weekends, he pinned a white carnation to his suit lapel, boarded bus or streetcar and took grandson Phil Capuano, Dale’s and Gary’s father, to whichever Maryland racetrack offered action.
The thrill conveyed, Phil Capuano the elder haunted the Edgewater riding stable in D.C., married Connie Russillo, spent $500 on a racehorse through a newspaper ad and hustled to keep the stable stable: He drove a taxi, installed aluminum siding, sold vacuum cleaners, insurance, and insulation, snapped bowling-alley photos. Phil and Connie bought a five-acre farm in Upper Marlboro, Md., and a few more horses.
The cab-driving job offered flexibility, which meant time to take his sons to the racetrack. There, Dale found his future. “From an early age,” Gary said, “there was no part of him that wasn’t gonna train horses.”
Gary, a year younger, felt no such tug; he was too busy rebuilding lawn-mower engines and rewiring radios. In woodshop at Largo High School, he made his father a gun cabinet, then turned an old blue Plymouth Fury into a bossy roadster – useful prep for a planned career in auto mechanics.
Dale, meanwhile, felt his engine rev with early work at Bob Beall’s Bowie stable, home of crackerjack sprinter Dave’s Friend. Dale would reach the barn before sunrise, leave for school, return to Beall’s late afternoon and sometimes get home for supper. “I’m like, God bless ya,” Gary told him, “but that ain’t me.”
Even then, Gary said, Dale was serious, thorough, meticulous. “I was out playin’ or breakin’ somethin’ or fixin’ somethin’. ” Gary did his best to dodge the stables, but auto-repair work never accelerated. Somehow, he went to work for trainer Mert Bailes and saw horsepower in a new light.
The Capuanos’ male line thus bears conformational symmetries. Phil, the patriarch, took a no-nonsense approach to work and became a plain-spoken Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association board member; son Dale followed in task and manner. Gary found the track without intending; so did son Phil, who’d worked at a restaurant, a library and a Best Buy after high school.
Phil was 21 and living at home in 2014 when Dad issued an ultimatum: Go to college, work full-time, find a new residence, or come work for me. Gary thought the final option least likely. Two weeks later he had a new employee, and the family a new generation of horseman.
Phil Capuano, the elder, bred and bought and trained some horses, the chocolate-colored Gary’s Friend (Friend’s Choice—Yemen’s Mite, by Yemen) among his holdings. Dad asked Gary to train his namesake. Gary had no license but complied. In the summer of ’82, Gary’s Friend won Bowie’s Playpen Stakes in Dale’s name. The program trainer was 20, his brother 19.
By then, Phil Capuano the elder had bought Yemen’s Mite and bred her to Silver Badge, a stakes-winning son of Poker. He named the colt Silano, raised him at home, ran him in Connie’s name and gave him to Dale. The docile bay took the ’86 Playpen in his second start, the Rollicking in his third and a half-dozen other stakes through his 8-year-old season. Silano raced 67 times, won 20, earned $693,524 and skewed the expectations of rookie groom Dilodovico. “He was the kindest horse in the barn,” Dilodovico said of the first runner he ever rubbed.
Before long, he put a brush to In the Curl and Double Bunctious, each a multiple stakes winner of more than $500,000, and stakes-placed Shaviana ($260,770).
Come 1991, he and Geralis had the backing to co-train a stable of their own. “It was hard to leave,” Dilodovico said. “I remember puttin’ off givin’ my two-week notice for a couple weeks. Dale just made it a good place to work. What an education. I could never repay him.”
In his understated home in Dayton, Md., on 17 understated acres, Dale spent his sixth day post-career easing forward and looking back. In a cozy dining room, before a side table barely large enough for all the crystal mementoes he’d earned (with one more goblet on the way, a retirement gift from 1/ST Racing), he described a road ahead neither paved nor planned. He loves the sales; a stint as bloodstock agent might prove interesting. Maybe become a racing manager. Learn more about the stock market. Live less encumbered, the way non-racing people do.
Whatever awaits, he said he’d first help firm Phil’s footing, and his own. He closed 2022 at 213 pounds, an all-time high, and vowed to use the empty days as remedy. At a gym in nearby Glenelg, on a 15-degree incline at 4 mph, he started walking the treadmill for an hour in the morning and another in the afternoon. Five days in, the scale read 208.
“When you start seein’ progress, it makes you motivated,” he said.
Dale being Dale, he’d purposefully prepped for these rigors in December by plotting a chart he kept in the basement – his own training schedule. His knees, he said, show no stress if he limits his movement to walking.
Knees he knows, and the corresponding issues that transcend skeletal structure. On this he explained, in vintage candor, his hands-on tactics that grew more challenging with time.
“The way that I liked to do it, we always worked hard on our horses’ legs,” he said. “A lotta legwork. Nowadays, you see people that don’t even put a bandage on ’em and beat you to death. So it makes it harder to retain help because they can go to the next barn, where a guy does little, and you’re gonna make ’em do a lot. And that is a big issue for someone like me. It makes it harder and harder to have the quality help that you want. I guess you don’t blame a guy for sayin’, ‘I can go next door and work. I don’t have to put ’em in ice when it’s cold, I don’t have to do all this stuff that you’re makin’ me do – bring ’em out and jog ’em every day.’ No one really does that.”
As he finished the line, an odd buzzing filled the room. On the floor, next to a silver chalice noting Heros Reward’s Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup heroics, a circular object escaped its housing and whirred across the hardwood to another room. Dale looked down. “One of those robot vacuums.” He said his live-in girlfriend, acupuncturist and dressage rider Rebecca Douglass, must have programmed it. Then he proceeded as if never interrupted.
“I put my hands on ’em every day. Every horse. So you have to find people that really buy into your system and wanna be part of it. And today, the young people, they’re on their phones, there are games; why would they wanna get up early in the morning?
“Back in the Bowie days, even Laurel, we always had young people comin’ that were either in college on break or in high school, walk horses and learn with horses. Now, for years, nobody. There’d be people waitin’ at the stable gate to get in and see if they could get a job. No more. Those days are long gone.”
Glasser, another evergreen owner, said Dale’s uncompromising ways especially resonated: The long-retired developer, 91, appreciates the value of foundation. “His hard work and his honesty set him apart,” Glasser said. “I don’t think there’s anybody at the track that works harder than he did. He was out there early in the morning. He checked every horse. Every race he was down at the paddock. His game was claiming, and he was good at it.”
In the fall of ’88, owner Randy Williams asked Dale to consider a $23,500 claim etched in mystery. The 2-year-old was by Cut Throat (GB), an English-raced son of Sharpen Up (GB) they knew nothing about. Neither had seen the colt’s winning debut three weeks earlier at Turfway Park, but Dale liked his presence. They took him.
The following spring, after seconds in the Federico Tesio Stakes-G3, Cherry Hill Mile-G3 and Garden State Stakes-G2, Wind Splitter finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby-G1 off a roundabout trip, 8 1⁄2 lengths behind the triumphant Sunday Silence. Wind Splitter won the Grade 3 Trenton Handicap in 1990, two ungraded stakes in ’91 and $332,239 all told.
“That’s the thing,” Dale said. “I’ve had owners like that for years that would say, ‘Let’s take a shot on this one and that one, and if it doesn’t pan out, that’s not the end of the world.’ You’ve gotta be willing to gamble to come up with things. So, over the years, I’ve taken odd-type horses like that.”
The soliloquy led him straight to In the Curl (Shelter Half—Ocean Girl, by Rollicking), a tenacious female sprinter he claimed for $75,000 in March 1989, when the Maryland tracks offered such races for stakes-caliber horses and risk-scorning buyers.
“That was a gutsy claim,” Dale said. “I’ll never forget – track was a sea o’ mud at Pimlico. Nick Rinaldi always came to the races. So I go up in the dining room. ‘Mr. Rinaldi, the track’s bad. Do you still wanna take this horse?’ ‘Yeah. Let’s go ahead and take her.’ So we take her. She wins. They cancel the races after that because of the track condition. How lucky was that that we got her?
“The next day she was pretty shaky. I was a little nervous. But we worked on her, and she came out of it. So somethin’ in the racetrack stung her, and then the rest was history.”
Her final record, 85-26-24-14, bespoke speed and endurance. In the Curl raced to age 9, won 10 stakes and earned 10 times her claiming price.
Where In the Curl prompted early angst, Heros Reward supplied lasting drama. Dale claimed the sturdy, vexing, marvelous enigma for $20,000 for Haynes and Jayne Marie Slysz in 2006. By Partner’s Hero from the Caveat mare Lifes Passage, the gelding had won a $16,000 maiden claimer in his previous start and carried 25-1 odds the day of the claim, which did nothing to temper Dale’s zeal. Racetrack and paddock angles consistently revealed clean legs and good bone.
Heros Reward’s first race for the new barn brought disappointment, then understanding. He’d displaced his palate, an exertion-wrought condition that impairs breathing, had surgery to fix it. He resumed three months later, blinkers off, in a winnable $5,000 Delaware Park claimer he couldn’t win.
Dale: “I’m like, ‘You gotta be kidding me. How did this horse get beat?’
I just knew this horse was better than this, and I really didn’t wanna lose him.”
Third in a $10,000 claimer, fifth for $15,000, Heros Reward confounded his connections with dirt-track underperformances. “He just trained too good not to get any better,” Dale said. The devoted poker player had one more card to see. A green one.
Heros Reward sprouted, then grew, then blossomed on the grass. Runner-up (with trouble, at 61-1) in his first start on new footing, he won five of the next six, improving as he went, including the Baltimore City Turf Sprint on Preakness Day as the favorite. Before 2007 expired, he had seized the $500,000 Nearctic Stakes-G2 at Woodbine. A year later, he bobbed for the midstretch lead in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Santa Anita, finishing a close fifth after starting from the disadvantageous inside post in the field of 14. He raced eight seasons with Dale and resigned to Haynes’s eight-acre Rob Ry Farm in Gaithersburg, Md., with $1,301,698 by his name, 16 victories, a Maryland-bred Horse of the Year title and seven state-bred divisional titles. He remains on the farm, Haynes said, at age 21.
“Heros Reward was a strong-boned horse,” Dale said, “like a throwback.” The comment nudged the conversation toward less embraceable trends. Yes, he said, the modern racing Thoroughbred lacks the stoutness of its generational predecessors, thus can’t be trained as hard and raced as often. He remembers breezing Silano a mile in 1:38 and change before the Jennings Handicap, a race he won. “Nowadays,” Dale said, “you just don’t have horses that can do that.”
He went on: “I look back at the ones we had that raced a lot – most of ’em were good, solid-boned horses . . . When they have good-boned legs, their body goes with it.”
Today’s less-durable runner, he implied, emphasizes the importance of a dependable racing surface, which cued a subject unavoidable: Moquist. The 3-year-old Nyquist filly, owned by Maury Povich’s Mopo Stable, had a voracious stride and spotless record in the fall of 2021 as Dale prepped her for her stakes debut at Laurel.
At times throughout the year, Dale and other horsemen had complained of dirt-track inconsistencies; a major renovation the summer before, they said, had yielded only short-term improvements. Problems acknowledged, Laurel ceased racing from April to August of ’21 as it made repairs. Not long thereafter, safety concerns resurfaced.
Moquist, meanwhile, seemed to glide through anything. After a sizzling debut at Timonium, she commanded three straight Laurel allowance sprints. She rose so fast and stirred such confidence that Dale uncharacteristically skipped a condition in an allowance race she won by daylight at 4-5. Word traveled of gawdy offers from eager buyers, but Povich held firm. Bred by Katy Voss and Bob Manfuso at Chanceland Farm, the filly Capuano had plucked as a $50,000 yearling had unquestioned talent and boundless upside as a half-sister to Breeders’ Cup Sprint-G1 winner Aloha West.
Dale thought of his star fillies – Prized Stamp, Kimbralata, Miss Mischief, Double Bunctious, Disco Barbie, In the Curl – and concluded that none could outrun Moquist. Belief met ambivalence: Moquist had to work to make the Safely Kept Stakes, but the racetrack sights and sounds bred caution.
“I watch the horses train every day, and I’m listenin’ to how they’re hittin’ the ground, the noise and pounding,” he said. “I’m not just listenin’ to my own; I’m watchin’ ’em all go by. So I do have a good idea. And then I’m not afraid to say, ‘Hey, this is not right.’ I call it as a I see it, like balls and strikes.”
He related to management his observations. The track stayed open for training and racing.
As Moquist breezed toward the Safely Kept one Sunday morning, something snapped, her brilliant flame extinguished. Seven days later, Ulman’s American Playboy took off in an allowance sprint and failed to survive it, the last of eight horses to die racing or training from Nov. 6 to Nov. 28. In early December, the track closed to address the issues.
“Makin’ a phone call to the owners with the bad news is the worst part of the whole business by far,” Dale said. “Makin’ the call for Moquist was brutal.”
As much as anything, the failure to address track condition irked Dale after the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was enacted last July to apply national standards to a state-governed sport. However well-intentioned the legislation, Dale said, implementation fell short by prioritizing unnecessary vaccine requirements, medication and whip restrictions over racing-surface integrity.
HISA inequities, racetrack problems, the condition-book wrinkles that skew true racehorse values by essentially eliminating open claiming races “show you how things have changed,” he said. He contends those issues alone didn’t compel a retirement he’d contemplated well before, nor did they hinder it.
“In my eyes,” Dale said, “it’s better for me to go out when I wanted to go out, on my terms. And, you know, that’s pretty much how I’ve done everything – on my terms.”
Before he left, he said, he complimented track superintendent Chris Bosley on a Laurel dirt surface much improved. This was vintage Dale – unafraid to criticize, able to praise.
“The track, up until the time I left, was in really good shape,” he said. “I told him, ‘I wish I was always complimetin’ ya, sayin’ everything was great.’ ”
From there, Dale extended his 40-year run of ducking no reporter’s question: Can you manage this financially, two years or more from Social Security eligibility? He smiled. “I’m pretty conservative, so if I decided to retire, I’m pretty sure I can make it ’til I die. If I run outta money, I’m back to work. I started walkin’ hots, and I’ll end up walkin’ hots, right?”
Bob Haynes, owner of Heros Reward, laughed at the telling. “Dale’s first winner, he still has some of that money in his savings account. So, financially, he’s in great shape. He’s a young 60. You see it all the time in sports: People don’t know when they should call it a day. And he called it a day on top. Now he gets a chance to live.”
January 1, 2023, 3:45 a.m. No alarm in play, Dale awoke 15 minutes before his custom. The morning darkness and its relentless call to action had lost its voice. In the restful quiet of a strange new day, he read awhile, killed the light and went back to sleep.