Laz Barrera is a fascinating, complicated man. He can be very funny or very moody; he can behave with all the hauteur of a Latin American general or reduce his audience to tears as he tells of his struggles in the horse training business. For the last five years he has stood as the only trainer to be a great success in both California and New York, the nation's principal racing states.
It's axiomatic in racing that when a stable of thorcughbreds moves from the West Coast to the East, it takes a long time for the horses to make the transition from the hard, fast tracks of the West to the deeper, slower ones of the East, and history is full of examples of runners that have had vast difficulty in making the adjustment. Barrera, however, knows how to acclimate his horses faster than any other trainer, and he's not about to give his secret away. "The only difference between the Laz Barrera who trains horses at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park," he said last Saturday morning, "and the Laz Barrera who trains horses at Saratoga and Belmont Park is in the license plates on his cars. In California, my license reads LAZ. In New York, it's BARRERA. But I'm the same trainer in both places."
As he spoke, Barrera was standing under his shed row at Belmont nine hours before Affirmed would run in the $191,000 Woodward Stakes. He was looking out at the rain and ducking a number of bees buzzing around him. "Today is Sept. 22, the last day of summer," he said. "In the East that can mean that when you wake up tomorrow there will be snow on the ground. The bees know that summer is ending; that's why they are so mean right now. They sting for no reason at all. At this time of the year the bees will get down inside your shirt and crawl up the legs of your pants and sting hell out of you. But the bees also get slower now. You can swat them a lot easier than you could two weeks ago. Watch!"
The trainer promptly swatted three bees to death and then laughed. "Experts are just like bees at this time of the year," he said. "They get slow and dumb. Two weeks ago experts said that Barrera ducked the Marlboro Cup because he was afraid Affirmed could not beat Spectacular Bid. I was up front in giving my reasons for not running in the Marlboro: I thought the weights for that race were way out of line. I still think they were. A lot of people said I was a lousy sport for not running in the Marlboro, that I owed it to the game. What I owe the game is for the public to see Affirmed at his very best in the best races. A trainer's job is to do the best thing for his horse. I think I have, I know that if Affirmed loses the Woodward today I'll look like a fool. The field is tough, and the racetrack is going to be sloppy. But Affirmed is ready. I'll let Affirmed speak for me."
And Affirmed spoke eloquently. The 4-year-old won the 1¼-mile Woodward by 2½ lengths over Coastal, who beat Spectacular Bid in the Belmont Stakes last June, and by 6¼ lengths over Czaravich, one of the best of an excellent crop of 3-year-olds. The win was Affirmed's 21st in 28 lifetime starts, and en route to his victory, he did something horses rarely do.
With a little more than a quarter of a mile remaining in the race, Affirmed was pinched in along the rail and seemed about to make a fool of Barrera. During the early part of the race he had difficulty getting hold of the sloppy track as Mister Brea took the lead and both Czaravich and Coastal edged by Affirmed. But suddenly Jockey Laffit Pincay eased his grip on the reins and Affirmed put on a devastating burst of speed. There was a wide gap separating Mister Brea on the inside and Czaravich, and Pincay guided Affirmed into the hole without ever striking the horse with his whip. Normally, when a horse "splits" other horses it must first be stung with the whip, then cracked once again to keep it moving. Pincay, however, kept his bat straight up in the air, and Affirmed sailed between Mister Brea and Czaravich as if they weren't there.
Through the stretch Pincay rapped Affirmed gently a couple of times, and the 1978 Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year went on to win just as he wanted to. Pincay has now ridden Affirmed nine times and finished first every time, although Affirmed was disqualified from victory in the 1978 Travers for fouling Alydar.
While the $114,600 winner's share kicked Affirmed's record career earnings to more than $2.1 million, it also helped to further stuff the saddlebags of Pincay, who is trying to set a record for money won in a year. Not only did Pincay win the Woodward for Barrera on Saturday, but three days earlier the two also had teamed to win the $159,200 Paterson Handicap at the Meadowlands with Valdez. In the two-week period ending with the Woodward, Pincay picked up nearly $350,000 in purses and now seems certain to break Darrel McHargue's 1978 record of $6,188,353.
The ease with which Affirmed won tended to obscure the fact that the Woodward was a truly good race. Going in, Coastal had lost only one of seven starts this year, while Czaravich had won five of six races in his career. Czaravich is a huge, royally bred son of the 1970 English Triple Crown winner Nijinsky II and, according to owner William L. Reynolds, is named Czaravich after the nickname of one of the great dancer Nijinsky's understudies.
In New York this spring Czaravich emerged as a sort of cult horse; a huge contingent of racetrackers followed his every move and bet heavily on him. One reason for Czaravich's popularity is that he is trained by William H. (Billy) Turner, the young man who got Seattle Slew through his Triple Crown season only to be fired at the end of it. Turner is a smart horseman, a man who could train a gnat to throw a shotput, and when Czaravich won his first three starts Turner's admirers thought he might have a horse that, although unraced as a 2-year-old, could be a Triple Crown threat.
Czaravich simply didn't have enough seasoning to compete in the Derby and Preakness, and Turner set his sights on winning the Belmont. But two weeks before the Belmont, Czaravich contracted a virus and was unable to run in the Peter Pan, a race in which he would have been the odds-on favorite over Coastal. Coastal won the Peter Pan and then the Belmont, all of which tended to increase the Czaravich mystique. After being away from the races for nearly four months, Czaravich returned in early September and won the $109,300 Jerome Handicap by defeating Valdez, Barrera's top 3-year-old.
Before the Woodward, Turner said, "Well, I've got to try Affirmed. He's one of the finest horses that has ever run, but it's time for Czaravich to go after the heavy heads. I'm not going to say I can beat him, but we'll make it a horse race."
For a mile Czaravich made the Woodward a most interesting race, even though he had never before competed over a sloppy track. Approaching the top of the stretch, it looked as if Czaravich might indeed be able to prevail, but he drifted out a bit and Affirmed came roaring up inside of him. As Affirmed pulled away, Czaravich seemed to labor as if he didn't really care all that much for the track condition. "It's far from a disgrace to finish third to Affirmed," Turner said. "Affirmed is a great racehorse. His trainer isn't too bad, either."
On Oct. 6, Affirmed will meet Spectacular Bid in the $350,000, 1½-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, with Affirmed carrying 126 pounds and Spectacular Bid 121. Both Affirmed and Spectacular Bid now can lay just claim to being Horse of the Year, and until they finally meet, the bees will indeed be buzzin'.