When my grandfather gave me his car on my 16th birthday it was a boon to my brother Bob and I. Ardent racing fans, we were now able to follow the Southern California circuit from Santa Anita Park to Hollywood Park to Del Mar without restrictions. We were students of the game and especially of trainers. The two we idolized most were Charlie Whittingham and Bobby Frankel.
When either man did something special with a horse, we would paste the horse's past performance chart in a spiral bound notebook as a reference to how they prepared a horse for a particular race. The class of a race meant little to us, it was the "wow factor" that mattered. Whittingham stretching Burt Bacharach's B'dashed out to win a starter race, or Frankel claiming a one-eyed, geriatric gelding named Strong Award off my mother's obstetrician and winning a stakes with him was just as important as Cougar II winning the Santa Anita Handicap off works alone.
Bob and I knew, at 16 and 11, that we were going to spend our life in racing and even though we loved handicapping and betting, owning, training and breeding were in our future.
After working for Daily Racing Form and stints as quasi-assistants to Doug Udouj in Kentucky and Julio Canani in California, I took out my trainer's license in 1980. Handicapping savant and future television star Jeff Siegel found a horse for me to train, Bronze Parade, who we purchased privately from Bruce McNall's Summa Stable. We syndicated him to include my uncle's old racing partner, Richard Portolan, Freddie Meyer, a close friend of Jack "Sweep" Karlick of the DRF and Ruth Weil, a wealthy lady from Beverly Hills.
Bronze Parade ran third in my first start in September of 1980 at Del Mar and subsequently won his second start at Oak Tree and was claimed. My stable had a meteoric rise to stardom, winning five of our first seven starts and prompting syndicated newspaper handicapper Professor Gordon Jones to write that I was, "the Fernando Valenzuela of horse racing." The rookie Dodger pitcher had started his career on fire and that is a comparison I will never forget.
Fast forward to January 6, 1982. It's a cold and rainy day at Santa Anita and I need to send out my training bills, so I skip the races to do the bookwork. Bob, who is now grooming horses for me, comes home after feed time and says, "You have got to watch the replay of this 3-year-old run tonight. We have got to claim him. Larry Perkins brought him in and Albert Yank owns him. Don Pierce never let him run. He's a big good-looking horse, and I know they are gonna cash a bet with him."
Larry Perkins was a Florida-based trainer who liked to wager. So much so, that I had once tried to get down on a Perkins trainee when I was in Las Vegas and was refused. The race book manager would only let me bet $5 across the board!
Albert Yank was a deluxe, full-service, bloodstock agent. "Alberto Pie," as he was affectionately known in racing circles, had put together thousands of horse deals and in every one of them, he was the beneficiary.
Don Pierce was one of the greatest jockeys who ever sat in the saddle. He rode second to Bill Shoemaker for Charlie Whittingham and loved betting coups as much as anybody. So my brother certainly had the right set of players when he formulated his hypothesis on Pewter Grey.
Almost simultaneously, a group of four friends - DiFiore, Hamilton, Neal and Pellman - came to me with a check to claim a horse. Dr. Frank DiFiore was the head of the syndicate and suggested we claim a particular horse off trainer Darrell Vienna. The horse was too obvious to me and Vienna is a genius. When I saw the horse walk over, I wasn't thrilled with him and didn't drop the claim. He won the race by 14 lengths. My new clients were not impressed with me.
I told Dr. DiFiore about Pewter Grey. "He's a beautiful horse," I said. "He's got an unbelievable pedigree for the grass. He was once in front of Linkage and they are playing games with him."
Now, I couldn't sell ice cubes in hell, but I was all in on this horse. I guess my pitch was infectious, as Doc said, "O.K."
February 18, we drop the claim for Pewter Grey. He runs sixth beaten 10. My new clients are now even less impressed with me.
We find out the horse has a mean streak. He wants to bite you. He likes to kick. He almost ruined my family life. I had a horseshoe bruise on the inside of my thigh for a year, as a gift from him the second day we had him. He likes Bob, but everybody likes Bob. Bob became his groom.
After watching him gallop a few days, Bob and I see he doesn't pay attention. We put some blinkers on him and he galloped like a champion. A couple days later we breeze him in the blinkers. He works :58 2/5 under wraps.
"We've a got real horse," Bob yells as he runs to grab him at the gap.
The work picks up Dr. DiFiore's head. "I've never had a horse who could work that fast," he says.
We pick a spot, an allowance race, because we don't want Yank and Perkins, who incidentally offered us $32,000 for him the day after we claimed him, to take him back.
Blinkers on, Kenny Black in the saddle, Pewter Grey opens up on the field going 6 1/2 furlongs and leads for a quarter, proceeding to fold like a lawn chair, getting beat 25 lengths.
DiFiore, Hamilton, Neal and Pellman are beginning to think Bob and I are morons. Kenny Black says he wants to ride him back going long. The owners are encouraged by his speed and the willingness of Black to ride him back.
We drop him in for $32,000 and run him 1 1/16 miles. Black gets him in all kinds of trouble, but Pewter Grey only gets beat 11 lengths. I am relatively sure I am going to get fired.
Now a little speed crazy, the big horse is running off in his gallops and he is irritating me. Here's a horse with all this talent and he's wasting it, making me look bad in the process.
One day, I'm in the bathroom. As bachelors are wont to do, Bob and I have a picture of Vigors above our toilet. "The White Tornado" as he was called, came from out of clouds to win a myriad of major stakes. It is like a message from God. "Take him back you idiot."
The running off continues, so I come up with a plan.
I tell my exercise boy, Anthony Cuesta, to back Pewter Grey up to the 6-furlong pole and gallop him to the 3/8ths pole and work him as fast he wants to run for 3/8 and bring him back through the paddock.
"We've been trying to get him to settle and now you want to blast him off?" Anthony says. "I think it's a huge mistake."
"Just do it," I said, long before Nike.
Pewter Grey worked in :34 2/5.
Anthony was not pleased with me, so I told him to give his mount a few rounds of the walking ring before we went back to the barn. I wanted him and Pewter Grey to cool off a little before the next phase of my plan went into effect.
As we got close to the gap, I grabbed the bridle, stopped Pewter Grey in the road and said to Anthony, "Now what I want you do, is take him straight off and gallop him to the three-eighths pole and work him as fast as wants to go."
"You really are crazy," he replied.
Pewter Grey worked :36 2/5.
The clockers went off. We went through the paddock again, but when we got to the gap I was accosted by the identifier. "Did you work that horse again after he worked :34 2/5?"
"Yes sir, I did."
"Didn't he go fast enough the first time?"
"No, he went too fast. I wanted a slower work."
"So you did it the same day?"
"What do want us to give him?"
"Well, :34 2/5 and :36 2/5 is 1:10 4/5. Why don't you give him the 6 furlongs?"
He dismissed me with a disgusted wave of the hand and that was it.
They gave him :34 2/5.
Evidently, after that extravaganza of training, Pewter Grey thought I was just as crazy as everyone else did. The mind game had worked. Since he didn't know what he was going to do or how many times he had to do it, he settled down and took his cues from Anthony. It was a pleasure to watch.
I got a call with my old friend Fernando Toro and entered Pewter Grey in a 1-mile race for $32,000. Never one for giving top riders instructions, I had two specific requests for "The Bull."
"Take this horse back," I told him in the walking ring. "I mean dead last. Don't let him run 'til the 3/8th. I know his form looks bad, but he is going to run big. Do what I say or don't come back."
Fernando's eyes were big as saucers, as this type of conversation was out of character for me, but he listened and did a great job. He grabbed Pewter Grey out of the gate so hard that the horse was looking at the sky, he cut him loose at the 3/8ths pole, weaved through a hole that Terry Lipham opened for him when he was out of horse and won going away to the tune of $93.60. Fernando was smiling and laughing when he came back.
"You were right," he said. "He ran big. In the paddock, I thought you were crazy."
I got that a lot. I considered it a compliment.
Pewter Grey never ran for a tag again while in my care. It took him a while to learn the game, but he really blossomed at 4. Winning his first start of 1983 and then finishing third in his next allowance condition. He would have won his next start under Bill Shoemaker, but a horse of Carl Maggio's, trained by Lee Rossi, bit him on the rump going into the first turn and he ran off with the Shoe.
"I don't know what happened going into the first turn," the great rider said. "He was going so nice and then he just took off with me."
"Lee Rossi's horse bit him on the ass."
"You're kidding me. I think you're nuts."
"C'mon, let's watch the replay."
We stood in front of the television, Shoe in the green and blue blocked silks, and watched the whole incident.
"Wow! That's crazy," he said. "We should have won."
Saturday, February 19, 1983 at Santa Anita featured the Grade 3 Sierra Nevada going 1 1/4 miles on the grass. The weather was clear, the turf firm and Pewter Grey was entered with Eddie Delahoussaye aboard. Shoemaker wanted to ride him, but Charlie Whittingham had entered one against us, so he was committed. By Grey Dawn II out of Young Libby, by Hawaii, the distance wasn't a question. Bred by Mrs. Bayard Sharp in Florida, Pewter Grey was from the family of Mississippi Mud and kin to several route-running stakes winners. Save for jumping the dirt crossing the turf course, Delahoussaye gave him a flawless front-running ride. Winning our first graded stakes and our first hundred grander, at our home track of Santa Anita was something special for Bob and I. We'll never forget that day and that feeling. We talk about it often.
After the race, Phipps didn't call to have us take over the family string and people didn't line up to claim a horse for $20,000 and have the Feld brothers turn it into a graded stakes winner.
Although that would have been nice, winning the Sierra Nevada was a validation for us. It proved we had a clue. That we knew how to develop a horse. And most importantly, that our dreams were more than just the wishes of a couple of young guys who loved horse racing.
Pewter Grey was the horse who changed everything.
Jude Feld, a former trainer in Southern California, is an analyst with Horse Racing Radio Network.