Veteran trainer Bob Gilbert figured out the business side of horse racing years ago, but each season the new numbers still amaze him.
“I only like to keep 40 or 50 head around this place,” he said of his barn at Los Alamitos Race Course. “Any time I add more horses, it seems like my overhead gets higher and higher and I don’t make anymore money.”
Gilbert is a long way from being one of the new breed of quarter horse trainers. They carry calculators and pagers and inundate barns at Los Alamitos and elsewhere with increasingly large numbers of claiming horses.
But Gilbert, 54, knows what works best for him: not too many claimers; several potential standouts.
Last season, he made the most of his mounts. Though winning only 36 of 254 starts to finish 12th in the trainer standings, he posted earnings of $669,256, which ranked fifth.
Gilbert looks for a certain type of horse, though he admits even he has to have a few claimers now and then. A lot of last year’s success was thanks to the performances of two 2-year-olds, Uncas and Luva Secret, who combined to win five major stakes races.
Last week, Gilbert did well with two older mares, Flare For Toby and Ill Tempered Tee, who ran first and third, respectively, in the $21,600 Duplicate Copy Handicap.
“You can have 35 or 40 or more cheap horses and not a lot of runners,” he said. “There’s more money in the 2- and 3-year-old races, for sure, but I just like a fast horse. It doesn’t matter how old it is.”
His success with various age-group horses shows his versatility in handling the animals he is charged with putting on the track, according to Spencer Childers, who owns Uncas and Luva Secret. Uncas was a hit right out of the barn, Childers said, but Luva Secret was another story.
“Bob is certainly a good trainer,” said Childers, who lives in Fresno. “You never know about 2-year-olds. Sometimes you think they’ll be good and they disappoint you. Then there was Luva Secret. I didn’t think very much of her when I sent her to Bob, and she turned out to be a multiple stakes winner and one of the mainstays of the stable.”
Gilbert arrived at Los Alamitos in 1980, from his family’s 135-acre ranch in Nocona, Texas. He brought along four horses--three claimers and Kansas Derby winner Jamie Jay, a mare. His intention was to visit the track each season with three or four Oklahoma- or Texas-bred horses and win as many races as possible.
Jamie Jay went on to be named the nation’s champion 3-year-old in 1980. Sometime later, Gilbert hit it big with Teller Queen, a Golden State, Kindergarten Futurity and Los Alamitos Derby winner that earned more than $630,000 in its career.
“I wasn’t hustling horses back then,” Gilbert said. “I’m not a good hustler. I’ve always let them come to me. I kept bringing horses from home, but the longer I stayed, the more really good [local] clients I got.”
Gilbert’s reputation was made. He eventually settled in Sunset Beach, and today most of the horses he trains are California-bred.
Childers recently presented Gilbert with a new challenge, 2-year-old Satellite Sue, who some think has the potential to be better than Uncas or Luva Secret.
Two midsummer stakes races with interesting twists take place this weekend: Tonight’s $270,000 Ed Burke Memorial Futurity and Saturday’s $40,000 Juvenile Challenge are both for 2-year-olds.
With a win in the Burke, the colt First Sovereign will maintain a shot at winning the Los Alamitos Bonanza, which is a $1-million bonus. Created by track owner Edward Allred a year ago, the Bonanza will be awarded to the first horse that wins all three major races for 2-year-olds.
First Sovereign, owned by Jay and Polly Parsons, took the first step in May by winning the Kindergarten Futurity. If he wins the Burke, he’ll be pointed toward the Los Alamitos Million, the third leg of the Bonanza, on Dec. 19.
During trials, however, Romeo Ryon and My Strawberry Chick posted slightly better times than First Sovereign. My Strawberry Chick is owned and trained by Mimi Wells. Romeo Ryon belongs to the Norwalk-based racing syndicate Dutch Masters III. In a head-to-head trial, Romeo Ryon surprised First Sovereign in the final 100 yards and won.
“He had not shown us a whole lot, but he kind of woke up in a $12,500 claiming race a couple of weeks ago,” said James Streelman of Dutch Masters III. “I thought if he ran a perfect [trial], he could run second to First Sovereign.”
The winner of the Juvenile automatically qualifies for the $100,000 Juvenile Challenge Championship Nov. 14 in Grand Prairie, Texas.
Betting on quarter-horse races reached an all-time high in May, according to The Quarter Racing Journal. It’s up 10.3% from the same period a year ago. Total handle on 1,173 races was $33,776,773 through the first five months of the year, led by a 90.2% increase to an average of $21,324 per race at Fair Meadows of Tulsa over the last three days of the month.
Los Alamitos posted a 0.6% increase, according to the magazine, taking in $89,337 each day on an average of seven quarter horse races per card. The increase took place despite a disruption in simulcast signals on May 19.
But the key statistic, and what attracts top horsemen to Los Alamitos, Allred said, has been a steady increase in average daily purses to $48,923. The track ranks third in the nation behind Oklahoma City Remington Park ($74,584) and Texas Manor Downs ($48,980).
Track spokesman Orlando Guitierrez points out that the $270,000 Burke purse is the largest offered for that race since 1991, when it was $295,000.
The American Quarter Horse Assn. will hold a seminar for new and potential race horse owners Aug. 8 at 9 a.m. in the Los Alamitos Finish Line Room. Admission is free. . . . The annual Vessels/Schvaneveldt Sale, the largest of its kind in the West, will be Aug. 11 at the Vessels Stallion Farm in Bonsall. . . . Eddie Garcia has returned from a nine-day racing suspension and still maintains the overall lead in the jockey standings at the track. Garcia has won 96 races, all aboard quarter horses. Alex Bautista has won 89 races, 61 aboard quarter horses, and Joe Badilla, who won five races on July 24--one short of the track record for a night--has 69, all but two on quarter horses.