Laz Barrera leans forward in his chair in the office of his barn at Belmont Park and examines his shiny black shoes. For the first time since late December he seems to be in a state closely resembling repose. "Affirmed and Alydar are going at each other for the ninth time," he says. "Nine times! Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier only went three times. If somebody beat somebody six times out of eight, wouldn't you think the other somebody would feel that was enough? Not Alydar. Here he comes again, and they are going to fight it out down the stretch. On Belmont day my ulcer will bother me again and the blood pressure will go up, and when I get up early in the morning and look in the mirror I'll say, 'Lazaro, you are having a big year. You should be proud. Laz, why aren't you smiling?' "
At 54, Lazaro Sosa Barrera is having the most spectacular year any American horse trainer has ever experienced. He has Affirmed going for the Triple Crown, and through May 28 his horses had won $2,013,947, $1 million more than the earnings of horses trained by his closest competitor, Charlie Whittingham. Barrera's hand is so hot these days that he could send a horse through a car wash without it getting wet.
Looking down the shed rows of Barrera's barns at Belmont in New York and Hollywood Park in California, one sees nearly 50 horses, all treated as delicately as orchids; when Barrera goes after a stakes race he points each horse as carefully as a good archer aims an arrow. Already this year Barrera has accounted for 21 stakes wins, which would be a remarkable accomplishment for even the best of trainers over several seasons. But the greatest accomplishment may well lie ahead. On Saturday, Barrera will tighten the girth on Affirmed and hoist Steve Cauthen into the saddle for the $150,000-added, 1½-mile Belmont Stakes, the last and most difficult leg of U.S. racing's Triple Crown. Nine men have been fortunate enough to have trained Triple Crown winners, exhibiting the patience and skill that keep a racehorse on edge for five weeks while moving from Churchill Downs to Pimlico to Belmont. Now Barrera, who won two of the three legs with Bold Forbes in 1976, has his second chance.
At Belmont time some people erroneously assume that this race is the easiest of the three. It isn't. Since Citation in 1948, eight horses have won both the Derby and Preakness, but only Secretariat and Seattle Slew proved good enough to triumph in the Belmont as well. "Right now," Barrera says, "people are saying the Belmont will have only four starters: Affirmed, Alydar, Darby Creek Road and Noon Time Spender. That could be right, but people have very short memories. Go back one year to Seattle Lou [sic]. Everybody says nobody will run against him. But seven horses fell out of the trees and ran against him. Third-place money in the Belmont is bigger than for the Derby and Preakness. I'll believe there will be four starters when the starters are named. But if there are only four, you have a jockey's race more than a horse race.
"Pace makes the race, and I can't see anybody in front but Affirmed. Stevie can do whatever he pleases in front—go as slow or fast as he wants. I don't know what Alydar will do. Maybe he's going to dingdong it with Affirmed and go head to head from the gate. But that isn't his style. Maybe when you lose six out of eight you change your style. One thing I do know—at some point Affirmed and Alydar are going to be head to head. Heck, aren't they always?"
Before April 1976, when Bold Forbes took the Wood Memorial, Barrera had won many stakes races but never one of $100,000-added. Now though he has won 15 hundred-granders from coast to coast. "Whenever there is a $100,000 race," he says, "I want to get a shot at it." Barrera has shot and scored in California, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New York and New Jersey, and during the last 30 months his horses have won $7.25 million.
Barrera is clever, suave and in many ways the Casey Stengel of the racetracks, with a seemingly endless supply of stories and backstretch philosophy. He was born in the Marianao section of Cuba near Oriental Park, a track built on property once owned by his grandfather. As one of 12 children Laz worked hard to put food on his family's table by walking hots on the backstretch seven days a week for $3, keeping only 50¬¨¬®¬¨¢ for himself and turning the rest over to his mother. "I remember the first time I went to a track," he says. "I was maybe four or five. It was the Cuban Christmas, and it was celebrated at Oriental Park. The children were given gifts and a man gave me a new baseball. I never had a new ball before and I just rubbed it and looked at it like it was something made of magic. Everyone else watched the races, and I played with the ball."
At 16 he took out a trainer's license in Cuba and also made race selections in the newspaper El Mundo. At 20 he put $50 down to buy a horse named Donnagal. "A hurricane hit Cuba," he says, "and the track was destroyed and had to be rebuilt. Donnagal got all cut up by flying glass and could never run, so I set off for Mexico City."
Although there was racing only three days a week in Mexico, Barrera had enough winners one year to rank second in North America to Willie Molter, the trainer of Round Table. "Training in Mexico was tough," says Barrera. "If you didn't do good for an owner right away you hear the sound of the vans backing up to take the horses away. At one time I had 70 horses to train and had the best owner in Mexico to work for. He loved me. He would call in the morning and say, 'Laz, please don't eat breakfast before I get there. I want the joy of eating breakfast with you. I'll cook for the grooms and all the help.' He would say that I was working too hard and we should fly to Acapulco to rest. I would tell him the only reason I was tired was because he kept me up all night. We would go to Acapulco and get in great games of dominoes and we'd win because I could really play dominoes. One night a man pointed a finger at him and said, 'The only reason you win is because that Cuban guy is with you.' My owner just laughed and said, 'Go yourself to Havana and get a man who looks like him. But you will have to go many times to Havana and you will never bring a man back that can play dominoes like him.' "
Barrera knows that a trainer is truly his own man only when he can keep an owner at arm's length. "That is hard," he says. "I had another owner in Mexico City and he thought he knew everything. The first five horses I ran for him won, but the sixth was beaten a nose on the wire, and this crazy man runs down from the stands and wants to beat up the jockey. I told him I wouldn't train for him anymore and went to the stewards and told them so, too. They said, 'He has you under contract and if you do not train for him you can not train here.' I said, 'The hell with this,' and went to Cleveland, Ohio and became a jock's agent for Jorge Nunez, and we did good together. In Cleveland I got the chance to see major league baseball games and my favorite team was the Yankees. When they would come to town I'd go into the centerfield bleachers for 35 cents. I'd sit behind Joe DiMaggio, and one night when he hit three home runs I caught one of the balls."
Later Barrera returned to Mexico City and resumed his training career. "Racing is such a strange sport," he says. "In 1951 I flew out of Mexico City with $27,000 in $100 bills in sacks. I was going to the United States to buy a horse named Crafty Admiral for an owner who wanted the horse returned to Mexico. Crafty Admiral was for sale for $25,000 and had been a good 2-year-old in the U.S. We got to Miami and it looked like the sale was all set, but the veterinarian wouldn't okay it because he didn't think the horse was sound. I didn't know what to do but I didn't want the plane to go back empty, so I filled it up with hay and straw and we flew back with no Crafty Admiral. Later he was sold for less than $25,000 and went on to be an excellent horse. If he raced in Mexico he probably never would have been heard of and he might have broken down.
"You see, if Crafty Admiral had gone back to Mexico City with me I would not have Affirmed today. There probably wouldn't be any Affirmed today, because Crafty Admiral became the sire of Won't Tell You, Affirmed's mother."
Eventually five of Barrera's brothers became trainers in this country, and today two of his sons, 24-year-old Albert and 18-year-old Larry, are working at it. Says Albert: "My father probably hasn't had a real vacation in 20 years. Nearly 90% of his so-called free time is spent around his horses. When my father started training in this country in 1959 he spoke virtually no English and had only one horse, which was claimed from him. Hal King and Bill Winfrey, two good horsemen, lent him horses to train, and he did real good. My father had no schooling to speak of, but he wanted his children to have an education. When I got accepted at the University of Miami he took the letter and held it in his hands and they trembled. I had never seen him so proud. But I wanted to go on the racetrack myself, and after I spent three years in college he accepted that. When I won my first race, on New Year's Eve in 1974, I called him in California from Keystone in Pennsylvania. 'Albert,' he said, 'don't let one winner make your head big.' "
The vicissitudes of racing have kept Laz's own ego in check. Consider: Affirmed lost an extraordinary amount of training time in California this winter because of bad weather. "I could only see rain," Barrera says. "I thought it would never clear. Affirmed kept missing day after day, and when we finally could get him out on the track we would have to take towels and dry him off so he wouldn't catch cold. It rained and rained and rained, and I talked to the skies but nobody was home. First I was afraid that Affirmed would get sick, then I was afraid I would get very sick. I had enough water on me to be dead for the rest of my life."
A few days before the Hollywood Derby, Affirmed's final prep race for the Triple Crown, the horse got loose on the backstretch at Hollywood Park. "I went crazy," Barrera says. "Affirmed is running near a ditch, and there are cars all around that he could run into. I started running after him. I kept running, then all of a sudden an idea goes through my head. 'You must be crazy,' my head says, 'because no 54-year-old man can outrun Affirmed. If you catch Affirmed, you won't be catching no Affirmed, you'll be catching a donkey.' But he finally stopped and we got him."
Every horse that comes under Laz Barrera's shed row gets the Barrera Look, an examination for an hour during which the trainer just studies the animal and says nothing. He notices how it moves and stands and looks out at the world. If he sees anything that he thinks is wrong with a horse he writes in a book, simply, "Horse So-and-So is not Happy." He has not written anything in that book about Affirmed in two years.