By Jonathan Stettin
If the St. Louis Rams were the Greatest Show on Turf, then Oscar Barrera was the Greatest Show on dirt. If you didn’t get a chance to witness the Oscar days of New York racing, then you truly missed something that is difficult to describe. Words just don’t do it justice. You had to be there and see it, and if you didn’t, well, you may never understand. Nothing else in racing has even been comparable.
As The Belmont Stakes approaches, I find myself thinking about the glory days of New York Racing and some of the memorable Belmont Stakes. Of course, Woody Stephens’ five in a row come to mind. None more impressive than Conquistador Cielo who won The Met Mile against older on Monday, only to come back five days later and take The Belmont. And how can we not remember the thrilling battle of Affirmed and Alydar, with a triple crown on the line? At the 1/8th pole it looked like Alydar would have his revenge, but it was not to be as Affirmed show a determined grit not often seen, and dug down and came back to snatch the victory. What does that have to do with Oscar Barrera you may wonder? Let me come back to that.
The Oscar phenomenon started a bit earlier for me than most. I had no idea this angle a friend tipped me off to would soon become the focal point of New York racing. After all it was just an angle. It was a cold wintery day at Aqueduct when it began for me. It was the last race of a weekday card at Aqueduct, all but wiped out by a steady freezing type of rain that was falling. I brilliantly had already stopped going to school, and as a young man was spending my days at the track. I’ll never forget his face. It was the epitome of the cat who ate the canary. I just walked through the first floor entrance from the grandstand to the clubhouse on the Aqueduct apron. As soon as I entered the clubhouse, right at the concession stand which had already closed likely due to the weather, stood my friend Jay. Jay was a really great guy. I knew him from a cousin of mine. Jay owned a gas station and if you were hurting, as a young race tracker of modest means often can be, Jay was good for a tank of gas or some car repairs on the come. Every August he made sure my car would make Saratoga and back.
His smile was ear to ear. He had on a soaked hoodie sweatshirt with the hood up. I said hello and he could barely get the smile off his face to answer me. Frankly I had never seen anything like it. I said Jay are you alright? He just smiled and nodded yes. He tried a few times to clear his throat and could finally speak. He said I am about to win a bunch of money. He then took a role of bills out of his pocket and showed them to me. He said it was the entire register of the gas station plus whatever else he could muster up. Obviously I was now curious so I asked who do you like? It was a 10k open claimer at 6 furlongs. Nothing very inspiring especially on a sloppy track. Jay said I like Alturas. I looked at the board and there he sat at 10-1.
Jay looked at me with a serious face. He said I am going to tell you something now that may make you think I am nuts but I’m not. He said “you see this trainer Oscar Barrera, every time he claims a horse they win. Every time. He only claims three or four a year but they all always win.” Then he went back to that smile. Really I said, and he said yes I have been watching him do it for years. There were about 2 or three minutes to post at this point and there I stood with Jay taking this in. He looked at me and said aren’t you going to bet. I said yeah I guess so and headed for the window. I thought I was done for the day and had lost. I had $140 in my pocket and just about to my name. I didn’t really like anything in the race and glanced at my form while on the line. Allturas was off the Oscar claim and was in just so so form. I have never been one to listen to another but there was something that just felt different about this. I bet $40 of my $140 to win on Alturas. I went back to Jay and showed him what I did. He saw the remaining $100 bill in my hand and again gave me a look I’ll never forget. He was so disappointed. After all, Jay knew I was one to go all in when warranted; however, that was always on my opinion. Nonetheless, I ran back to the window and got the other $100 in just at the bell. The field had already broke when I got back to Jay. Alturas, under Jimmy Miranda was 4th on the outside. I looked at the board and he had gone down to 7-1. Not bad I thought. As they turned into the stretch, Alturas surged to the front. He drew off to a smart 3 or 4 length win going away. Jay looked at me, smiled and said he had to run back to the station. He had bet that entire roll. He’d cash on the way out. There I stood, alone in the freezing rain, and watched Alturas gallop back. Funny thing with horse players, I suddenly felt smart. I turned $140 into around $1100 and tomorrow looked bright.
Driving home I thought to myself, nice angle, I’ll have to watch out for it and see just how good it does. It was several weeks until another Oscar claim appeared in the form. Again it was a weekday at Aqueduct, and Oscar had one that was off the claim in the day’s feature. It was a 6 furlong sprint for horses who had never won a race other than maiden, claiming, or starter. The old non winners of 1. Oscar had Dancer’s Melody in the race. Jean Luc Samyn was riding. He had claimed the horse for $7500, the bottom claiming level in New York and was running back against allowance horses. He had only had the horse a very short time as well. The horse was claimed from Sue Sedlacek I believe, who was a very sharp and capable horse trainer. All that seemed to be against Dancer’s Melody. The biggest obstacle though was his lack of speed. He had none. He frequently ran in the 1 ¼ starter handicaps they used to card back then and was a plodder. He stayed far back off slow paces and picked up what pieces he could. He looked to have little chance sprinting against allowance horses. I mean he looked like he’d be 25 lengths out of it early.
Was Jay right was all I could think of on the way to Aqueduct. I was sure I would see him at the track but took no chance. I left early and stopped at his station. There he was with that smile when he saw me. Are you ready he asked? I said Jay how is this horse possibly going to win. He’s so slow in comparison. Not today he won’t be. It doesn’t matter. Jay said he couldn’t get to the track but would be betting at OTB and calling the stretch call number. Things were different then. I was off to the races.
By post time Dancer’s Melody was 8-1. He probably should have been 20-1. I was in better shape than when Alturas ran so about $500 of his win pool total was mine. Within an eighth of a mile of the break I knew Jay was right. Dancer’s Melody had already dragged Samyn to the lead. The first quarter went up in 22 and change and this mile and a quarter plodder was in front and rolling. The half was 44 or 45 and change. Dancer’s Melody stopped the clock in 8 and change which was the fastest time for 6 furlongs for that Aqueduct meet. He won easier than Alturas did. I knew this was going to be fun, but I had no idea it was about to turn into a phenomenon and the 7 and 8-1 prices would soon become a thing of the past.
There was no stable mail or horse watch lists back then. There were no trainer stats off the claim readily printed in the form either. It didn’t matter. I had no intention of missing the next one. Dancer’s Melody generated some press though, and likely tipped the boulder down the mountain. Things would change quickly, but I had no idea to what extent they were about to go.
Oscar started claiming horses with more frequency than before. It went from 3 or 4 a year like when Jay was following him, to 3 or 4 a month. What didn’t change, however, was the frequency with which they won. I’d love to see the formulator stat on Oscar off the claim back then. Amongst the ridiculously high percentage, there were also factors that actually increased them. Running back in 3 or 4 days with a blowout work crammed in along with a blinker change was money in the bank. Is there a percentage higher than a hundred? It was that uncanny. Unfortunately, along with the press attention the prices of the past were gone. Suddenly when Oscar had one in off the claim, they opened at 6-5. That was about what you could expect to get on them as well. There was just one significant difference in betting an Oscar off the claim horse at 6-5 than say a “regular” 6-5 shot. You were going to win. Period. It didn’t matter how the race looked, or who else was in it, you were going to win.
The phenomenon grew to a frenzy. You had your supporters, and your haters. They even stopped referring to Oscar trained horses by name or number. Who do you like in the sixth? Oscar was a solid answer. It even extended to the rooters at the monitors and in the stands. As the horses entered the stretch there was always a chorus of Oscar, Oscar, Oscar. No number or name. No come on 7 or get em 5. Nothing like that. Just Oscar.
It was as reliable a thing as you will ever see in the game. It was uncanny. The horses did whatever they had to in order to win. They’d re break, re break again and even again if necessary. Whatever it took. Pace didn’t matter, lone speed didn’t matter, pressure didn’t matter. They could overcome whatever a race or another horse could throw at them. Well almost anything. One time Computer Carlos was stuck behind a wall of horses turning for home. Rene Douglas as a bug I believe was aboard. He had a hard time getting Computer Carlos out and when he finally did Carlos took off so fast he left poor Douglas behind. It was like a cartoon scene. The horse just flew and Douglas was left in suspended animation and fell to the ground. Computer Carlos finished first on the outside but we couldn’t cash those tickets. That’s what it took to beat a well meant Oscar horse.
Falling down wasn’t enough as Crème De La Fete once fell down and got up and won. Yes literally. He stumbled to his knees in the stretch just before swinging wide and re rallying. After dropping back suddenly, he re gathered himself in a trot before he re broke and flew home to get up on the outside. It is one of the most amazing races and wins I have ever seen. Talk about never give up. If you never watch another race watch this one and see what Oscar could do He goes from first to last to first. Crème de la Fete is on the inside in the famous pink and black Oscar Barrera silks. Yes that is him dropping back. Unfortunately the second he goes down is the second he is out of the cameras view. I was there, you’ll have to take my word on that but the race shows more than enough.
Shifty Sheik gave champ and blue blood Slew O’ Gold all he could handle in the 1984 Woodward. He didn’t win, but he was second or third off the claim, not first. He did make Slew fight for it though. He had been claimed for 35k I believe from Barry Schwartz. You can watch it here. There were so many Oscar success stories like that. Even Silver Charm’s dam, Bonnie”s Poker was an Oscar claim. Three days’ rest, no problem. 1 ¼ cut back to 6 furlongs no problem.
I never understood the haters. They would complain how you couldn’t bet a race with Oscar in it. I never had a problem doing so. You could turn 25k into 50 or 60k no problem over the course of three or four runners. Nonetheless, the haters hated and complained. There were constant allegations of juice and who knows what else. We’ll never know as one day it just stopped. Stopped cold, then slowly faded into memory. Before that, however, there was much effort to catch Oscar at whatever it was they thought he was doing. They raided his barn. Searched his car. Put him under surveillance. Never found anything. And he kept winning. Until it just stopped. I remember his barn at Belmont, the windows were spray painted black so you couldn’t see in. There was a sign that said keep out.
Some trainers thought they could outsmart him. Bob Lake, a good trainer in his own right came up with the notion Oscar just claimed the best horses. He started claiming everything Oscar ran. He ate almost every horse he claimed from Oscar. Those that ran back, and that was only a few, never ran well. I’m going off memory here but I can’t recall a single horse he claimed from Oscar winning for him. Nobody else had any better luck either.
It’s no secret all the Barrera brothers were excellent trainers and horsemen. I remember Oscar used to sit with his brothers Luis and Guillermo on the first floor of the clubhouse at Aqueduct. I had many a memorable conversation with all three of them from time to time in that very spot. Laz was already in California. The brothers were very approachable if you had a familiar racetrack face. Oscar had two answers if you asked him if he liked his horse. The first was reserved for just a horse or someone perhaps he didn’t like. That answer was my horse got a shot. To those he liked, when he was live, he’d say I like this horse a lot in his heavy Cuban accent. If he liked you and said that, you could just wait by the window.
As good as Oscar was with horses I suspect he would not have made a very good poker player. He had the biggest tell I ever saw in racing. I always knew when he was going to win. It was more reliable than KGB and his oreos. Oscar liked to watch races live on the apron. As they ran, if he was live, he would lean and tilt towards the right or finish line. Sometimes I worried he’d fall over. The more he leaned the faster they seemed to run. It was like he was putting English on them. A leaning Oscar never got beat.
Now what does all this have to do with The Belmont Stakes, the test of champions. Nothing more than an observation. The Barrera brothers were close. You could tell that watching them those wintery Aqueduct days. They were family guys. When Affirmed won that Belmont, showing the resilience so many Oscar horses showed, it made me smile when, in the winners’ circle and post race celebrations, Oscar was fist pumping and smiling like my friend Jay was. And let us not forget that another Barrera brother, Luis, won a Belmont Stakes and thwarted a Triple Crown attempt in the process. Summing, under an aggressive ride and early move by George Martens, took the lead down the backstretch and held it until the wire. In doing so, he derailed the Triple Crown hopes of Pleasant Colony. I was not surprised to see Oscar in the winners’ celebration with that smile on his face.
May the departed Barreras rest in peace. All of them. They are missed not only by their loved ones but by the game. And some say you can never know for sure the outcome of a horse race.
Victor Espinoza gets a high five for that stellar ride he put on Hard Not to Like in The Gamely Stakes. That was a Cool Hand Luke ride if I ever saw one. Nice time for Victor to get hot. A big high five to Joe
NYRA for capping Belmont Stakes attendance at 90k. We’ve had more in there, and you’ve had 37 years to get ready. Hire some extra help, get a good plan and make it happen. Don’t turn people away while we are looking to increase the fan base.