The Inside Rail

Gary Gullo came to Saratoga in 1974. He was 14. He and his friends, they lived on the track, walked hots for Gullo’s dad, Tom. It was good money for 14-year-olds. Water boiling in rusty red metal barrels, propane hissing underneath, corn on the cob dropped in the water for a mid-morning snack. You had to pump the faucets for cold water, dip a bucket into the barrels for hot.

“My father kicked us in the ass,” Gullo said.

Gullo loved it, thought of nothing else, quit school in ninth grade.

“This is where I went, no education,” Gullo said. “I told my kids I graduated college until they were about 14, then I had to tell them the truth. Who gets an education, when you’re a real racetracker.”

Oh, it’s an education.

Tom Gullo filled his barn with about 20 horses, that was plenty back then. He never made it big, but made a living training for Hollywood stars Jack Klugman and John Forsythe, traveling to Argentina to buy horses and banging out a living on the tough New York circuit.

“My father was a good trainer, really was, for the horses he had,” Gullo said. “He was good with betting on the horses, he made his money betting. He was very patient, knew when they were going to win. It was different back then. When he bet…everything was secretive with him. We kind of knew, get a cue in the paddock, I’d go to the window and bet my 20 dollars. He would wait until the paddock, nobody knew nothing.”

That’s an education.

Gullo worked as an assistant for his dad, got his first trainer’s license when he was 18 at Hialeah Park and took a private job for a heart doctor in 1980. His father helped get him the job, 15 horses, 200 bucks a week. Gullo won his first race at Saratoga that year, stabled inside Horse Haven where Gary Sciacca is today. The job lasted a year, year and a half before Tom Gullo got lung cancer and Gary came back to help his father, the family. Back on his own a few years later, it’s all he’s ever known, despite his father’s pressure to take another path.

“He always tried to talk me out of it. He wanted me to do anything other than this, be a plumber, anything,” Gullo said. “At the time, the business wasn’t good, but it was fun, it was different, everybody helped one another. Today, only a handful of guys have all the good horses and that’s it. Back then everybody had one or two good horses, the fields were better, the competition was better.”

This season at Saratoga, Gullo won two races opening day and sends out two longshots in today’s Adirondack, which is where this story got its impetus. At his barn for a stakes preview, I wound up with a life review, a business review.

Gullo pointed to one barn, Jerkens was over there. Pointed to another, Calumet Farm.

“The history around here…” Gullo said after training Saturday morning. “It’s something when you look around, you just hope they don’t screw it up.”

And that is the state of the game – respect for the history and concern for the future. Everybody is banged around these days in Thoroughbred racing but the trainers take the most lumps. Most love the game and hate the business, relish the race and abhor the ledger. Gullo has ridden the wave, up and down. He quit after 9/11 decimated his owners and took Jorge Chavez’s book for a few years. That was educational but not soulful. Stanley Hough gave Gullo a job. He worked for his father’s friend for about six months, then picked up a horse, then two and gradually hung more and more yellow webbings. Now he trains for good owners, good friends, but you can feel the grind.

“Business is getting tough. You’ve seen the changes. You think having 30 horses, back then that was a big stable, now, it’s nothing,” Gullo said. “We lose horses a lot. I’ve got empty stalls. When you’re running a horse competitively in the claiming game you’re going to lose the horse. Trying to replace them is tough. If you like a horse, there’s a five-way shake. For the guys who have 15 horses, it’s very difficult, because if you want to win, that number could get down to eight right away and that keeps them from winning because they can’t run them in the right spot. The little guy can’t play the game, your owners don’t understand it, you’re up against it.”

Gullo read an article recently, it called him “veteran trainer Gary Gullo.” He shook his head at the thought. That 14-year-old kid, living on the track, eating corn from a barrel, waiting for a paddock cue to win dinner money, yeah, he’s still there despite the reality of an ever-changing sport.

“We got done early today,” Gullo said. “I’ve got more help than horses.”

Gullo offered me a cookie. I declined and said goodbye, walking through the center aisle of the converted carriage barn, past Dominic Galluscio’s brush box, under the slate roof, past an Adirondack hopeful sleeping her morning away.

The place oozes history. I hope it continues.