Fair Hill Training Center might be the only Thoroughbred facility in the world where you can be off the dirt and on the turf. That’s the scenario trainer Mike Lerman faced Friday morning, and on a few other frosty mornings this winter, with undefeated 3-year-old Square Shooter.
With the dirt track frozen, Lerman could have sent the gray colt to the Tapeta for a jog but opted instead for a hack in the field across from the barn. Square Shooter, who runs in Saturday’s Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct, and stablemate Riq Fox walked out the barn door, turned right instead of left, crossed the dirt road, walked up a bank and stepped into a wide-open field. Flanked by woods on three sides and probably spanning 100 acres, the field is a frequent stop by horses trained by Lerman and others in the spring, summer and fall. But Lerman uses it in the winter too. The grass, cut for hay the rest of the year, folds over and provides a cushion. There’s peace, quiet, a stillness. It’s difficult to see or hear anything manmade. And the horses love it, even when three deer stand in the center and watch.
“The grass has been great,” Lerman said Thursday. “The ground really didn’t freeze up that much in the fields. We’ve been training up and down the hills with him a lot. A horse like him, with a good mind, can thrive out there. There are so many options and places to go and things to do. You can do something different with them every day. A curious young mind like his really gets a chance to do something out there in the fields.”
Fair Hill keeps the dirt track open all winter, weather permitting. If temperatures get too far below freezing at night, the maintenance crew leaves the track be. The Tapeta is always there, and the winter horse population is about half what it is the rest of the year. Lerman goes by general manager Sally Goswell’s informal guideline of, “If it’s in the 20s before midnight then the track probably isn’t going to be open.” Friday morning the dirt, resurfaced last summer, was smoothly groomed but untouched by horse, human or tractor.
Square Shooter still goes to the dirt for serious works like 5 furlong moves Jan. 27 and 14 and a half-mile Dec. 28. The mix seems to be paying off as he won both starts as a 2-year-old – a 6 1/2-furlong maiden Nov. 1 and a 7-furlong allowance Dec. 11. The son of Trappe Shot faces his next test as one of 10 in the $250,000 Withers going 1 1/16 miles at Aqueduct. The field includes the streaking El Areeb at 6-5 on the morning line and nine unknowns. Six bring one win into the race while Square Shooter, Always A Suspect and Small Bear have won twice each. El Areeb, of course, has won three in a row by a combined 25 lengths for Laurel Park-based trainer Cal Lynch.
Lerman and owner Gold Square might have preferred an allowance spot, but such races are rare for 3-year-olds.
“It’s not like the old days where you had a chance to let them develop in allowance races,” Lerman said. “Your hand is kind of forced to step up to the stakes races. He’s training well, he deserves the opportunity. Obviously, Cal’s horse is a short-priced favorite and he’s proven, but the rest have all won one or two races.”
Bred in Kentucky by Stone Farm and Joe Sutton, Square Shooter sold for $80,000 at Keeneland September and was pinhooked to the Ocala Breeders Sale in April by Crupi’s New Castle Farm. Lerman spent $125,000 to buy the son of Trappe Shot, but was in no hurry. Square Shooter went back to Crupi for a month, then came to Fair Hill.
“I liked him from beginning,” said Lerman, who won a career-high 16 races (from 63 starts) last year. “He’s a medium-sized, athletic, laid-back, intelligent horse. I just let him find his way once he got here. I try not to be in a hurry. He came to hand pretty much without any trouble.”
The gray colt won his debut Nov. 1, rallying from well back to score by three-quarters of a length in a maiden race at Parx. In an allowance race Dec. 11, Square Shooter wound up battling for the lead early inside of a rival and kicked away late to win by 2 3/4 lengths going 7 furlongs. Both races impressed Lerman, and not just because they were wins.
“He’s gone to the races and shipped out of here and been a total professional both times,” the trainer said. “The first time he hadn’t ever seen a real racetrack and was great and the second time, when you think he might get keyed up about it, he was good again. He ended up on the pace more out of circumstance than plan. He’s never been hit with the stick and he’s earned the right to be where he is.”
Saturday, he breaks from post nine for Frankie Pennington with potential pace horses to the inside. El Areeb has been close to the pace in his wins and Always A Suspect exits four 6-furlong races.
Square Shooter will get one more day in the country at Fair Hill, before heading to the big city for the 137th Withers Saturday morning. Lerman opted against going earlier, and having access to an unfrozen track.
“This is just keeping him happy,” Lerman said Friday morning as Square Shooter navigated the field. “I told the guys, ‘Go for a ride,’ and that’s what they’re doing. He doesn’t need anything else at this point.”