Last Thursday morning after training, five pigeons caused a fuss outside Ray Handal’s barn on the Oklahoma Training Track. A Handal Racing cooler hung to dry on a railing. Geese squawked overhead. Pickup trucks and golf carts zipped by. Piles of bedding poured out of stalls in the barn. In front of each stall, a Jolly Ball horse toy dangled. Hanging baskets of flowers hung from the roof.
Handal’s team was hard at work tending to the horses, who were all quiet, relaxed and happy.
The scene was a far cry from last summer, when Handal had four horses in a barn on the harness-track side at Saratoga. He’s got 20 now, but was up to 26 in the beginning of the meet before several were claimed. The young trainer had a “miracle run” last year, going 2-for-5. This season, his runners have won two of 18 with another eight placings.
Handal became a racing fan as a child reading the Daily Racing Form to his visually impaired father. Handal still describes his dad as his best friend, and they bonded at the track. From age 10, Handal knew he wanted to be a trainer. As soon as he was old enough, he left home and went to work for Jonathan Sheppard.
Handal learned to walk horses and ride, bounced around a few stables before finding a home in Tony Dutrow’s barn. He worked for Dutrow for three years before going out on his own. Handal, who pays tribute to his mentor with his red and black stable colors, took The Special’s Brandon Valvo on a tour of the shedrow.
English Soul: A $55,000 buy at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic May 2-year-old sale, New York-bred daughter of English Channel finished second in debut Monday for Zilla Racing Stables. Acupuncturist Nan Miller worked on her the morning of the tour while Handal held a Jolly Ball up the filly chomped on. “My acupuncturist. She does me and the horses. I have way more stress than the horses. It’s not easy. She seems really talented. Breezing lights out, fast from the gate. She’s done everything the right way. She’s huge. I can’t believe she’s a filly, let alone a 2-year-old filly. She looks like a colt. She’s got a lot of sass to her. She’s just aggressive about everything. Walking, just sitting in the stall, if you look at her too long, she’ll get (mad) and kick the wall or something. She’s a lot of horse.”
Wake Me Up At Noon: Regan Jack Racing purchased son of Temple City for $40,000 at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic May sale. Breezed 5 furlongs in 1:01.88 last Friday. “He’s probably my biggest client. I have like five for him. He breezed a really nice five-eighths from the gate the other day with two older horses that have won. Visually, it was very impressive. It’s hard for 2-year-olds to do that kind of time. I’m excited to see him run. He’s going to run in a maiden special going seven-eighths. Looking forward to him getting out there. It’s fun getting the young horses out there. You put all this work into them and it takes three months to get them to the race and hopefully all the work pays off.”
Go Big Or Go Home: Sol Kumin owns 2-year-old son of Ghostzapper out of multiple graded stakes winner Bizzy Caroline. He shows eight works that include a half-mile move from the gate in :47.89 Aug. 19 and 5 furlongs on the training track in 1:02.39 Aug. 28. “I used to ride his mom for (Ken) McPeek six or seven years ago. I want to go long on the grass with him first time. I have a couple five-eighths into him. I want to get a few more before I want to run him. We’re just going to sit tight. Those guys are so easy to deal with. A lot of people want to run here. They’re like, ‘let’s run at Saratoga, he might be a work short, but let’s just get him out there and see what he’s like.’ They’re like, ‘no, when the horse is ready to win, then we’ll run.’ Last summer I claimed a horse off Sol for 25, Winter Springs, and I ran him back five weeks later. He ran fourth the day I claimed him for 25, I stepped him up to 32 and he won. Sol got my number and reached out to me. We just started building a relationship from there, stayed in touch, and we’ve been talking about getting a horse together for awhile now. They sent me this guy like 2 months ago.”
Valhalla: The son of Trappe Shot, who walked in the end stall as a truck idled loudly outside, won twice for a tag at Belmont, the latest going 6 furlongs July 9. Entered in the third race Friday. “He’s going to run in a 20 for 3-year-olds. A really good group of people own him. Gaining Ground Racing, the guy is from Minnesota. I used to take care of Brad Cox horses and when he left for the winter, he pulled out his string and he suggested they stay with me and we did really well with each other and when Brad came back to New York, they kept horses with him and I. Just a great group of guys that love racing. I like the horse, he’s got a really good shot.”
Madam Aamoura: Placed in the Oak Tree Juvenile Fillies Turf Stakes as a 2-year-old before being claimed by Handal for $14,000 June 25. Five-year-old Zensational mare finished second here twice. “Honest mare, runs her race every time. Linda (Rice) caught us with a drop down the other day and I think we’ll be tough at Belmont in the same condition. Randall Manor owns this girl. Five guys from Staten Island, a couple guys that are local. They’re young guys that are all about having a good time and winning some races. It’s not always about the dollars and cents, it’s about the experience and having a blast with it all. It’s a big selling point for me being a young guy and training. A lot of my owners are early 30s, looking to have fun.”
Jegos Fire: An imposing figure in the barn, the son of Posse sticks his head out from the stall and Handal rubs his face. Winless in 11 tries, he finished third in a maiden claimer Aug. 4 and is entered in the 11th race Friday. “He’s literally the biggest horse I’ve ever worked around. Last race was my first start with him. I’d had him about four weeks, they transferred him over from Gary Contessa to me. I decided to stretch him out, try going two turns. He ran a bang-up third, was running on good at the end. He’s going to run back here right before the meet’s done for a maiden 40 going a mile-and-an-eighth, which is a little bit longer than the last race. Training super well, very straightforward horse. Sometimes he can be a little difficult, before and after the track. For as big as he is, he’s a little bit of a spook. He’ll jump around at things. He’s a good boy though. He’s really sweet.”
Collective Effort: Loudmouth Racing’s and Dark Horse Racing Stable’s 2-year-old son of Mission Impazible finished second twice and third once in three starts. Handal holds the colt and points two bumps protruding from his forehead. “We call him Diablo. He has two horns on the front of his head. Literally two horns. He’s a little nippy. He’s a biter. I think we’re going to run him in (the Aspirant Stakes) at Finger Lakes Sept. 9. Even though he’s a maiden, there have been maidens who have won it and his figures would be right on par. He’d probably be the favorite in that spot. I still have in the back of my mind he could be grass as well. I’m thinking about breezing him on the grass for the race and see what he’s like. It would be silly not to at least try it. He’s dead fit, he’s run three times, so even if he doesn’t like it, he’ll get enough out of it to be just fine for the race the following week.”
North Eight Street: The Big Brown mare finished second for $16,000 tag going 6 1/2 furlongs Aug. 4. “Was transferred to me from Michelle Nevin. Ran a couple times on the grass, just couldn’t quite get there. We ran her non-two for 16 on the dirt last time. Kiaran (McLaughlin) had one in there on the drop, a Stay Thirsty filly for Zilla actually. She seems like she’ll probably be the logical choice next time, so we’ll see what happens.”
Real Creel: Broke his maiden in his first start last September at Kentucky Downs before Handal claimed son of Mizzen Mast for $40,000. Third here sprinting on the turf July 30. “I’m so bummed this guy didn’t get in the other day. He’s a horse we claimed off Asmussen. Ran back … got stuck in some traffic. We got excluded from the race last week, so I need to find out if they’re going to put something up for us, otherwise we’re going to have to look for Belmont. Nice Mizzen Mast colt for Reagan Jack Racing. He’ll get there for that same condition.”