The man who trains Northern Dancer, Se√±or Horatio Luro, cuts a splendid figure around the track. Well over 6 feet tall, he dresses in the tweedy elegance of European aristocracy, often with the added fillip of shirts in dazzling pink or yellow. When he supervises the daily preparation of a dozen or more Thoroughbreds at early morning workouts, Se√±or stands out like Adolphe Menjou at a soup kitchen. Each time a set of his horses arrives on the track, there rides Se√±or aboard his stable pony, his hawklike face peering impassively from beneath a rakish cloth cap, a flawlessly cut hacking jacket on his back and a pair of gabardine slacks over his well-boned English boots. It might be Chantilly or Newmarket, were it not for the prosaic American types who are cluttering up the background.
During the afternoon racing, the rich and famous welcome Se√±or to their box seats, basking in the charm of his Continental manners and hoping, perhaps, for a tidbit of profitable information. When Se√±or doffs his hat to the ladies, one sees that the hair has thinned to a few brown strands. Otherwise the strenuous 63 years he has lived have left hardly a trace on this handsome man.
Around the paddock and the saddling enclosure, the doubt-torn public is on equally easy terms with him, calling to him by name and now and then grasping his sleeve with soiled hands and rasping into his ear, "Hey, Se√±or, anything to tell me?" Though Se√±or rarely rewards anyone with more than a sly and conspiratorial smile or a little small talk, no one seems to go away disappointed.
There is ample precedent for Luro to win a big one like the Kentucky Derby. Two years ago he won the race with Decidedly, an outsider that came from George Pope's El Peco Ranch in the San Joaquin Valley of California. In the 27 years since Luro arrived in this country from his native Argentina riding a shoestring, his horses have won a dozen stakes in the $100,000 category, as well as many of the classics, among them the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Whitney Stakes. Luro's victories in run-of-the-mill stakes and handicaps from the Arctic Circle to the Mexican border are uncountable.
May 3, 1964
Even so, Se√±or is a legendary character among horsemen chiefly because of Princequillo, a 2-year-old Irish plater he claimed at Saratoga 22 years ago this summer. Within a year Luro developed this courageous little colt, who seldom ran on more than 2½ or three legs, into the distance champion of the country, and today, at the age of 24, Princequillo is one of the leading sires in American Thoroughbred history. Round Table, his most famous offspring, is the leading money winner of all time.
In 1944 Princequillo broke down, and soon after Luro did, too. Princequillo was relegated to stud in Virginia, and Luro went to the Mayo clinic. "The war was over," Luro says, "and the help situation was very bad around the tracks. I am very exhausted, and I think I quit racing completely and go to live in Europe or something. But after I spend some time at the clinic and take six months' vacation I feel so good I am itching to get back to racing."
The career of Horatio Luro divides itself neatly into two phases—before and after his postwar breakdown. When he resumed his racing activities, he established himself as one of the most knowledgeable and respected Thoroughbred horsemen, training for such distinguished stables as Liz Tippett's Llangollen Farm, E. P. Taylor's Windfields Farm and Pope's El Peco Ranch. He was married to the popular and pretty Mrs. Frances Gardiner, daughter of a wealthy Atlanta mining executive—his second marriage—and he settled down to a conscientious and reasonably conservative routine for a man who lives by racing. But it was in the first phase of his life that Luro developed his great knowledge of horses and an undying reputation as a lady-killer.
Horatio Luro was one of the nine children (six sons) of Adolfo Luro, a wealthy rancher who headed a large meat-packing company in Argentina. "I learn very early in life," Horatio says, "that my grandfather, Pedro Luro, fought the Indians in the 1800s. They were always fighting back and forth across the lands, my grandfather and the Indians, and he had a very fast horse, a buckskin called El Moro. When things got hot and he was on the run and had to save his skin, he always took that horse. He left his sons millions of acres."
Se√±or is very proud of his forebears, and he recalls with fondness the happy and irresponsible days of his youth, when his family had a great deal of money and he lived the life of a ni√±o bien, or playboy. The Luro brothers all went to school in Buenos Aires, and during the summer vacations they lived and worked at Haras El Moro, rounding up the cattle and schooling the horses. As Se√±or puts it, "Girls, unfortunately, were one of my weak spots." When he was 18 he found one that appealed to him so much he ran away with her, and Father Adolfo Luro had to call on the police to find the romantic couple.
The Luro white and gold racing colors had for years been among the most celebrated in Argentina. Their most famous horse, Old Man, never lost a race in his career and is still regarded as the Argentine equivalent of Man o' War. To earn his filial allowance money, young Horatio had to put in an appearance at the Sunday race meetings, and soon, as he says, "I got interested in racing without knowing it."
At that time, however, he still was more interested in girls and next found himself in love with a young lady who was embarking on a voyage to Europe. Horatio went to see her off and decided, on the spur of the moment, to go along for the ride. A friend of about the same measurements lent him some clothes during the voyage, and Horatio became engaged to the girl in mid-crossing. After three or four jolly months in France, the girl broke off the engagement "due to my lack of consistency," as Se√±or explains it. When his father thereupon stopped his allowance, Horatio found himself a job in Paris as a car salesman.
During the next few years Horatio bounced back and forth between Europe and Argentina, married an Argentine widow with a couple of children, operated a Chrysler agency in Buenos Aires with a rich playboy pal, who is known on the international nightclub circuit as Macoco, and worked for a time in the Argentine embassy in The Netherlands.
The illness and financial difficulties of his father during the Depression brought Luro back to Argentina in 1933, and at this point he took over active management of the racing and the El Moro stud. Times were bad in South America in those days, and Luro found himself disposing of most of the family's 40 or 50 yearlings each year in exchange for IOUs and other nonnegotiable paper. Several times the thought occurred to him that he might do better peddling the horses in the U.S., but his father told him he was crazy. "You don't speak the language, and you don't know anything about American racing," the elder Luro protested.
Still, Luro couldn't get the idea of the American Thoroughbred market out of his mind. In 1937, shortly after his father's death, Se√±or made his first visit to the U.S., landing in Miami. He met John Gaver, Duval Headley and several other well-known horsemen in a Miami nightclub and went to the races with them. What he saw on the Florida tracks convinced him that his own horses and the other Thoroughbred stock of his native land would do well in the U.S.
About six months later Luro received a call from a man in Chile, who introduced himself as A.E. Silver, an American trainer shopping for racehorses in South America. Silver had only about $3,000 to spend, but Luro found a couple of horses for him and arranged to ship them north. He also persuaded Silver to let him accompany the horses and bring along a couple more of his own. The horses and Luro arrived that summer of 1937 in Chicago, where Silver's acquisitions won a few races. Then Luro moved on to California. There, during the fall season, Luro himself scored his first victory, with a horse called Amor Brujo, who won two of three starts. By the end of the year he had disposed of his stock and had a profit of something like $40,000 or $50,000.
That money and more that followed evaporated quickly. "I like the girls in Hollywood," Se√±or says without regret, "and I spend a lot of my money there. What is left I take back home and buy some more horses and bring them back for the next season. I liked this country. I liked better to live here than in Argentina, so I resigned from the El Moro stud. And then every year I go back and forth to Paris on my vacation, and it was a very nice life. I have a lot of fun in those days, but then came the war, and I could not import any more horses."
A friend who has known Se√±or since his early days in the U.S. and observed him in all his activities at close range, has summed him up this way: "He liked French champagne, Argentine horses and American women." One of the most popular stories about him at that time is told by a reporter who called him up one Sunday to ask him a question about one of his horses. "Why you bother me on Sunday?" Se√±or replied. "Sunday is for lauveeng."
On the other six days of the week, however, Se√±or kept his mind closely tuned to business. He particularly admired the technique of B.A. (Plain Ben) Jones, the taciturn old Middle Westerner who was beginning to have such enormous success with the Calumet stable of Warren Wright Jr., the baking powder man. "His horses always looked very good when he brought them to the races," Se√±or says. "He never hurried them, and he never ran them unless they were ready."
Se√±or's own training methods are a synthesis of his long apprenticeship with his father's horses in Argentina and his careful observations of Americans like Ben Jones. "Horatio has a good eye for a horse," says his former partner, Charlie Whittingham. "He is a great judge of an animal, especially its future, and he has lots of patience. He is a slow trainer who gives a horse plenty of time to get ready. He doesn't train fast, doesn't move fast himself and never is in a hurry to push a horse."
"I hired him because he was born to horses and understood them," says George Pope, for whom Luro has won a number of big races besides Decidedly's Derby. For the past six seasons, Se√±or has trained the eastern division of Pope's racing stable, while Bill Finnegan has handled the California division. Finnegan, of course, brings Hill Rise to the Derby as Northern Dancer's chief competitor.
The unhurried manner in which Se√±or has developed Northern Dancer illustrates the patience he employs when he has a truly fine horse. The colt was assigned to him as a 2-year-old by Taylor, who has regularly sent one of the smaller divisions of his enormous stable to Se√±or since 1957. The Dancer, who gets his name because his dam, Natalma, was a Native Dancer mare, started his career extremely well in Canada last August and finished the season by winning Canada's Coronation Futurity in October and the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in November, the former at 1‚⅛ miles and the latter at a mile. Unfortunately, he sustained a quarter crack on his left front hoof while shipping in a van, and so there has always been a threat that the horse would break down momentarily.
Realizing that only the gamest colt would run so well under such a handicap, Se√±or racked his brain for some way to get the colt ready for the Derby without causing him serious injury. He discovered that a blacksmith named William Bane had invented an operation for vulcanizing a split hoof and had performed it successfully on Su Mac Lad, the great harness horse. Early last December, shortly after the Dancer had won the Remsen, Bane performed a seven-hour operation on the colt in a stall at Belmont, with Se√±or in nervous attendance. Then followed the tedious and careful business of getting the Dancer back in racing condition without creating strains that might break him down.
For his first winter start at Hialeah last February, Northern Dancer was entered in an unimportant six-furlong sprint to test his progress. Bobby Ussery, the leading jockey of the meeting, was riding him, and they were badly bumped as they left the starting gate. When the colt recovered, he was lengths behind the leader, but Ussery rode eagerly after the field. Having caught most of the horses in the turn toward home, Ussery was again badly bumped but continued to whip the colt in an effort to win. He failed to do so, finishing third, and Se√±or was furious. "It's a terrible thing to beat a horse like that unnecessarily," Se√±or said afterward. "We know he can run, but we don't want to hurt him in some race that doesn't matter. I believe in being very patient with my horses. I don't want punishment—under no circumstances. Unless I prescribe punishment, which is very seldom, I don't want the jockey to touch my horses with the whip." Ussery was removed from further rides aboard Northern Dancer and was replaced by Bill Shoemaker in the Flamingo and the Florida Derby.
Se√±or's secret with horses, if there is such a thing, is a kind of reverse on the usual training methods. He tries to adapt the environment to the horse. For instance, he emphatically disagrees with the prevalent theory among some trainers that any of the leading jockeys are capable of getting identical results out of a horse on a given day. To prove his point he cites the case of Miss Grillo, an ailing mare he bought in Argentina in 1946 for $25,000 and brought to the U.S. for the Mill River Stable. Under the gentle ministrations of Jockey Conn McCreary, Miss Grillo won $250,000 before she was retired, but without McCreary aboard she could do little. On one occasion, when McCreary failed to show up for a race in Maryland, Se√±or gave the mount to Eddie Arcaro, who had been begging for a chance to ride her. That day Miss Grillo finished well back in the ruck, and Se√±or believes it was because she disliked Arcaro's strong, aggressive style. A few days later McCreary beat roughly the same field with Miss Grillo.
Most of the stable hands and exercise boys whom Se√±or employs around the barn have been with him for years, and he does his best to match their temperaments with the particular horses to which they are assigned. "When you get to know a horse, you can always tell whether he is happy or not and how he is feeling," the Se√±or insists. "You can tell by the way he is feeding and his disposition when he is working out and whether he likes the horse in the stall on this side of him or that side of him. You have to keep a horse happy or he won't run for you. Anyone can tell you if a horse is not happy when he goes to the track or finishes a race but you must be careful to learn what makes him happy. The same with a jockey. You must study the horse to understand the kind of jockey he will like. Northern Dancer, I am convinced, will get along very well with a boy who sits still on him."
Although Se√±or appears to have a disposition as serene and sunny as the first day of spring, he is not immune to the stresses and strains of the racetrack. A few years ago he was a party to one of the noisiest feuds in modern racing when he became involved in a lawsuit with Liz Whitney Tippett. They still refuse to speak to each other.
This year, as he moved north for the spring and summer racing, Se√±or tried to avoid some of the tensions of the past by confining his stable to about 40 horses consigned by a number of different owners including, of course, Taylor. In previous years he had attempted to train as many as 60 horses in three divisions, employing assistant trainers to manage each division and traveling to the different tracks in Canada and various parts of the U.S. where the divisions were racing at the moment. About his only respite was his annual summer pilgrimage to Deauville, a trip that he insists is necessary to protect his hay fever from the pollen of Saratoga. Deauville, however, is scarcely an escape, for there he looks over the racing stock that he and Frances run in France, and he also tries to find a few promising racing fillies at the Deauville sales.
Although marriage and the years have somewhat mellowed Se√±or, his racing public still looks to him for the miracles he provided in such fabulous seasons as the 1947 Saratoga meeting, when he had 17 winners in 30 races, including nine stakes. There are still a number of people like a Miami headwaiter named Pancho who used to bet $20 on every horse Se√±or trained, no matter what. It was Pancho's claim that with this system he never finished a meeting a loser.
Se√±or regards such faithful fans with amused tolerance, claiming that his only magic is hard work and a ceaseless attendance on the whims and eccentricities of his horses. As proof he points to a skin rash that covers his legs and arms, the effect of a nervous disorder brought on by the strain of his self-imposed routine. "I ask the doctor how to cure it," Se√±or says, "and he tell me there is only one way. Get a million dollars and a yacht and stop only at ports that make you happy."