Texts. Calls. Yells. Facebook messages. Part requests, part suggestions, part demands, they came quickly and they came often after the last race Sunday. All from racetrackers. And I use the term endearingly.
My racetracker friends wanted me to write about Nick Esler, who sent out Cuppa Joe to win Sunday’s finale. It was Esler’s first Saratoga win, they informed me. Esler is a good guy, they said. Esler is an up-and-coming trainer, they typed.
Sounds good to me.
I knew Esler’s name, knew his black saddle towels with diagonal initials, met him two summers ago when he had a mare for sale and that’s about it. Registered in Barn 71 on the barn list, I went to see him Monday but couldn’t find him among Joe Sharp’s stall plaques on the Oklahoma side. I tried again Tuesday, but Esler was at Belmont Park, checking on his horses there. After a few texts of my own, I found him Wednesday morning, on the backside of Linda Rice’s barn, across from the receiving barn on the other side of Nelson Avenue. Eight stalls, in a row, all in the same place.
Two years ago, Esler had horses stabled on three tracks – harness, Oklahoma, main. His tack was in the back of his car more than it was on the back of a horse. He didn’t win a race. Last summer wasn’t much better, Esler’s horses were spread out like tin cans on the shoulder of the road. He didn’t win a race.
This year, eight horses in eight stalls, under one roof and a winner on the third day of the meet. For a 32-year-old trainer who has been on the go since buying a one-way ticket to Dubai when he was 17 – paradise.
“It’s definitely different. The first year, I didn’t have the horses to be here, I probably only ran five or six. Last year, I was running around everywhere. This year, I came up here with eight horses, ones that I pointed for Saratoga,” Esler said. “You’ve got to go through the motions and learn from your experiences and get better from them. That’s why we all do it. There isn’t any shame in that. It’s been a learning curve, they don’t give away anything up here.”
Esler claimed Cuppa Joe for $50,000 for owner Robert Murray at Belmont Park, ran the horse once and then aimed for the first $50,000 starter allowance in the book. It worked. Trainers need supporters, Esler finally has a few loyal clients who will step up.
“On paper, he looked very, very solid. He jumped off the page to me. He’s a very good character, he’s been straightforward, very honest, tries hard,” Elser said. “We skipped the last one at Belmont to try to get off the bat here. When you plan something out and it comes to fruition, it’s all the more sweeter. People notice. If I come up here with eight and walk out with at least two winners, maybe three, and a couple of seconds and thirds, that’s a damn good meet.”
Esler learned horses in the center of Newmarket, England, working at his uncle Bill O’Gorman’s yard and then for veteran trainer Clive Brittain. Esler rode races for two seasons, before beginning a world tour, bouncing between Dubai, England, California, Godolphin, Wally Dollase, David Fawkes and a few other ports in between.
Esler went out on his own in 2012, after Fawkes kicked him out of the nest. Esler appreciated the push.
“He gave me a kick to go out by myself, which is never a bad thing,” Esler said. “Otherwise you’re always wondering when’s the right time to do it.”
Esler started with one horse at Monmouth Park. He helped run Bruce Levine’s string at the New Jersey track, then moved to New York and began adding bullets to his holster. Well, he thought they were bullets.
“I rolled along, got up to 24 horses in two years but I wasn’t vetting the horses that were sent to me, so I accumulated horses that didn’t fit in New York,” Esler said. “I weeded out horses that didn’t fit, got it down to 10 horses I wanted to keep and now I have horses that I’m really happy with, that fit in New York. Hopefully I can make it count at this meet and build it up again, this time with the right clients and the quality.”
Esler doesn’t see training and galloping eight horses as work. After what he’s seen, it’s play.
“I love this and I love the challenge of it. My grandfather trained horses, he dropped down dead of a heart attack galloping his strongest horse that nobody else could ride,” Esler said. “He was 45. He had 80 horses at the time. My uncle, Bill O’Gorman, he was 21 at the time, took on all the horses, he had to take care four brothers and sisters, my grandmother and provide for everybody.”
Makes training eight horses at Saratoga sound easy.