Doubling Up at Saratoga

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Which trainer saddled a horse to win two races at the meet first? Pletcher, Mott, Brown, Clement, McLaughlin? No, no, no, no and no. The answer is Steve Klesaris, who has 18 stalls filled with mainly claimers under the trees just beyond the main track’s 5-furlong pole. 

Spectacular Me turned the first double, which was quickly matched Saturday by Just Wicked and English Minister. There’s no prize for the feat, but Klesaris will take the success. It’s been a strange 20 months for the trainer – whose stable won more than 100 races a year from 2006-09 and featured graded stakes winners Diabolical, Mani Bhavan and Sky Diva. 

Chief client and partner Jeff Puglisi went through a divorce and sold his horses. In 2013, the barn he and Klesaris owned together at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland was sold. Looking to downsize and rebuild after settling on the barn, Klesaris sent horses to Parx Racing as a stopover to forming two small divisions – one in New York and one in Florida.

Only the horses didn’t leave Parx for months thanks to a positive test for the equine herpes virus in the barn. It wasn’t even Klesaris’ horse, but the diagnosis forced a quarantine and a nearly six-month derailment of any real plans. Klesaris couldn’t go to Florida, couldn’t go to New York, couldn’t even take his horses out of the barn. The quarantine lasted from November until the end of January 2014, at which time Klesaris had a barn full of unfit horses.

“New York let me come in, but then it took me three months to get them ready because they weren’t fit and hadn’t done anything,” he said last week while sitting outside his barn. “I lost some owners, some decent horses, people got upset about the quarantine. Some owners absolutely bailed. I can’t blame them. They were fed up.”

Now, he’s settled on a stable of about 20 based in New York. He sent some horses he owns to other trainers, and plowed forward. He’s got 18 in the string, all in Saratoga. Spectacular Me, a $25,000 claim for Winning Move Stable in late April, leads the way with the two wins (a $50,000 claimer July 26 and a $90,000 optional claimer Thursday) from the stable’s 15 total starts at Saratoga. On the year, Klesaris has 19 wins from 126 starts, a long way from 120 horses in the barn, graded stakes wins at Saratoga and Belmont, Breeders’ Cup starts and high-dollar sales horses.

“It’s a whole rebuilding phase,” he said. “Everybody looked at us like we had leprosy when we were in quarantine. I own a good half to two-thirds of what’s in my barn in partnership or by myself and I sent about six to trainers at Parx and Penn National. I don’t need to be conducting secondary operations, it was time for me to get back to New York. It’s hard to motivate any business without being here.”

In 2008 at Saratoga, Klesaris and Puglisi won the Adirondack and Spinaway with 2-year-old filly Mani Bhavan, then won the Frizette with another juvenile filly Sky Diva – both out of Delaware Park maiden wins. 

You need owners to provide horses like that and, while Klesaris thinks he’s got a chance to find them, he has no plans to return to the years his stable made 500 starts.

“One thing about our industry, more is not better,” he said. “I’ve had 120 horses in the past and more isn’t better. Not to me. But you really have to have clientele willing to invest in the yearling and 2-year-old markets which I did very successfully for a few years when Jeff Puglisi was pretty active. We had a lot of good horses, a lot of them.”

Klesaris grew up near Boston, and got his first experience with horses when his car-salesman father Peter traded a car for a horse. 

“I was 4 years old and before you know it we had six of them in the backyard 10 miles northwest of Boston,” Klesaris said. “We were going to the 4-H fairs, barrel racing, all that good stuff.”

Peter Klesaris bought a $1,500 claimer who “couldn’t run at all,” according to his son. Then bought another horse for $2,000 and made about $50,000. The car salesman became a trainer, brought his sons along. Steve was a sophomore in high school when he became an owner for the first time, buying his brother’s third in a horse for $500.

“The horse made like 10 grand in a matter of 2 1/2 months,” he said. “I was a sophomore in high school with a pocket full of money and I said ‘You know what, this is easy.’ “

He did a few semesters in college, abandoned the idea of becoming a veterinarian and became a trainer like his father and brother. 

“It was a little more difficult road than I thought, but it’s been good, fruitful,” he said. “I love animals. It wasn’t the gambling end of it, it was the horses that attracted me. I like what I’m doing. It’s exciting when they can run. I win a nickel claimer at Penn National and it’s every bit as exciting as winning any other race.”

Two wins at Saratoga aren’t too bad either.