The security guard tells the guy driving the dark blue Chevy Tahoe with the North Carolina plates and the trailer hitch to move, then move again. Finally, with the truck parked by a Dumpster in a spot formerly occupied by a golf cart, Rae Fernandez hops out with a shavings fork a newly purchased blue tarp.
“I forgot to bring a wheelbarrow, so I had to go to Lowe’s and get this,” he said of the tarp. “Got to keep the stall clean. He likes to roll.”
He is Tobias, the gray 6-year-old gelding in today’s ninth race. He’s a career maiden – zero for a dozen starts – and he stands patiently at a webbing in Stall 8 of Barn 1 watching the bustle of sets from Linda Rice, Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown walk past outside.
The historic Saratoga receiving barn, once the Sanford family’s private training complex, suits a story like Fernandez (who eventually put the tarp away and used a borrowed muck tub) and Tobias. They’re straight out of racing’s olden days – a horse and his owner/trainer/exercise rider/groom/van driver shipping all night to take a shot at the big time.
They arrived in Saratoga about 9:30 p.m. Friday, after an 820-mile ride from Fernandez’s small farm in Monroe, N.C. With six stops, it took about 14 hours, still 90 minutes less than it took to make the shorter trek to Belmont Park for a race early this month.
“We hit some traffic on 81 right by Penn National, which was funny and then a little bit right before we got on 78,” said Fernandez while walking his horse around the shedrow. “It’s a nice drive really. No traffic, no George Washington Bridge. He doesn’t mind it. He eats his hay, drinks his water, looks around. Every time I stop to get gas, I check the trailer, clean things up for him, make sure he’s OK. Luckily, he travels well and eats pretty much everything in the trailer.”
Saturday morning, Tobias had a clean feed tub and a dirty stall but went out for a walk and a bath (I was drafted as shank holder). The horse checked out the area around the receiving barn, watched the traffic over the fence on Clare Court, took deep, slow breaths and stuck his nose in the bathwater made sudsy by Saratoga Squeaky Clean horse shampoo. He was a long way from home, but didn’t act bothered by it.
Tobias is 10-1 Sunday while coming off back-to-back thirds in two starts this year – the first by a half-length at Delaware Park going 1 3/8 miles in June and the second by 2 lengths going 1 1/4 miles at Belmont July 1. Last year, he finished third in allowance company going 1 1/2 miles at Keeneland. Distance matters to Tobias. He wants all he can get.
“I’ve been trying to get him in another mile-and-a-half race forever,” said Fernandez. “The one time I did, the truck broke down.”
Fernandez bought Tobias, cheap, on New Year’s Day 2014. The Kentucky-bred, who made three starts for his breeder Janis Whitham and trainer Ian Wilkes in 2012, hadn’t run in more than a year and was parked on a farm in Florida with a bad reputation. He wouldn’t train without an argument. Fernandez usually balances a racehorse or two (flat, steeplechase, whatever) around a job with Amtrak and heard about Tobias through his friend Junior Velez. Fernandez did some research, loved the pedigree (Arch-Listen Well, Secretariat), and drove to Ocala with a trailer and some cash.
“Could you jog him for me?” Fernandez asked the man when he led Tobias out of a field.
“I’m not jogging this horse,” came the reply.
Fernandez did the jogging himself, got a good enough look, paid half the original asking price and put Tobias on the trailer. Based at Springdale Training Center in Camden, S.C., Fernandez had a project. And a test case.
In November 2013, he self-published the book “Drug Free Racing in America.” It’s meant to be a how-to guide for prepping a Thoroughbred to race with no medication, but it’s also part autobiography. Fernandez weaves a story of learning horsemanship at Suffolk Downs in the 1980s, of playing high school football in Massachusetts, of making the team at Florida State, of tearing up his knee, of coaching high school football, of being called the “What the heck?” guy in the paddock before races as he takes on big names.
Fernandez says Tobias (now owned in partnership with fellow North Carolina resident Johnny Eason) gets no medication, zero. Yucca and ginger are the anti-inflammatories, turnout is the tranquilizer. Hay, water, feed, individual attention are the rest. Tobias, a half-brother to Grade 1 turf winner Listening, doesn’t seem to mind the approach and finished 2 lengths behind Fire Away (a half-brother to Mr. Speaker trained by Shug McGaughey) and today’s foe Good Response (a Godolphin homebred trained by Kiaran McLaughlin) in his last start.
“He was a big, big bully,” Fernandez said of his early days with Tobias. “You came in in the morning what you saw was his ass. He’d kick at you, just grumpy.”
Fernandez fixed that with lots of work. Gradually, Tobias figured it out to the point where the trainer’s 12-year-old daughter Faith can lead him around. Now, everything is different.
“What I give away with the medication that he’s not getting he gets back with his mind by getting turned out and by getting to eat grass,” said Fernandez, whose book is available at Amazon. “He’s happy, he loves his job and every race he understands more and more. He’s a smart, smart horse. It’s really fascinating to see him change and improve. He’s a very late developer, but he’s got a lot of talent, he’s bred well and we’re excited to be here.”