05/30/2003 12:00AM

After a lost decade, a return to the winner's circle for a trainer


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Larry Barrera was just 18 years old when he was dispatched by his father, the flamboyant Laz Barrera, to travel with Affirmed through the 1978 Triple Crown. Larry remembers it all, from the cold April morning Affirmed arrived at Churchill Downs, to the beehive backside at Pimlico for the Preakness, to the denouement in the Belmont Stakes, when a weary Affirmed dealt noble Alydar that one, final blow.

A lot of very good young horses have come and gone since 1978, and there has never been another Affirmed, at least as far as Barrera is concerned. Even as Funny Cide stands on the threshold of a Triple Crown sweep, Barrera remains amazed that 25 years have passed without another horse stepping up to win the Triple Crown.

He is even more surprised that he's alive to say so.

After spending most of the 1990's in a haze of drugs - an addiction that eventually led to heroin - Barrera wakes up these days to a miraculous second chance. His benefactor is Aaron Jones, a bridge to the Barrera past, populated not only by Affirmed, but also by such champions as Bold Forbes, J.O. Tobin, Tiffany Lass, It's in the Air, and Lemhi Gold.

Through it all - the detox, the rehab, the meetings, and the

12 blessed steps - Barrera's saving inspiration remains the memory of his father, the grand Cuban horseman who died in April of 1991 at the age of 66, a Hall of Famer in three countries and a legend in his own time.

"You don't know what you have until you lose it," Barrera said. "To me, Laz was the greatest friend, the greatest person, the greatest trainer, and the greatest father anybody could have. When he died, it sent me into such a tailspin that it took me to places I would never wish my worst enemy to go."

And so, at the age of 31, Barrera turned his heart and soul away from the only business he knew and ran as far from the racing world as possible. He landed in Las Vegas, the ideal place for a person bent on self-destruction to get the job done. He almost succeeded.

"You have no idea how many times I should have been gone," said Barrera, 43. "No one ever has to live the way I lived for so many years. I lived the same day every day. Get the drugs, do the drugs. It was a nightmare, and I thank God every day that it's over. But I had to change, or I was going to die."

The spiral that sucked Barrera into living that same horrible day over and over and over was a far cry from the giddy highs of being Lazaro Barrera's baby boy.

Bearing his father's name, little Lazaro became Larry, and like his older brother, Albert, he was born a racetrack prince, destined for whatever greatness he chose to fulfill. Laz Barrera doted on his sons, spoiled them, gave them money, gave them jobs, and watched them squander their gifts.

"Larry was always a bit of a hell-raiser," said Jones, the Oregon lumberman who joined the Barrera bandwagon in the late 1970's. "But he always loved his dad. He was there when Laz had his heart surgery, and he was there the night he had that last heart attack. By the time they got to the hospital, he was beyond repair.

"I knew Larry blamed himself to some degree, for that and some other things," Jones went on. "I think it just got the best of him. He got worse instead of better. Finally, he just sort of dropped into oblivion.

"I remember how Laz would tell his wife, Carmen, 'You raise the girls, I raise the boys,' " Jones said. "I guess she did a better job."

She had more time. Lazaro Sosa Barrera was always busy being Laz. Larger than life and avuncular to a fault, he embraced the world as his personal stage.

Laz Barrera was in his 20's when he rose to stardom as a trainer in Mexico City. They called him the Cuban Tyrone Power, and he looked the movie star part, especially while hanging out with the Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. For laughs, Barrera and Rubirosa would kick a soccer ball down fashionable streets, or test young fighting bulls at a tienta with the great Mexican matador, Carlos Aruza.

The twists and turns of Laz Barrera's colorful life included a prospecting trip in 1951 to check out a good 3-year-old for sale in Florida.

"I get on a plane in Mexico City with $27,000 in $100 bills, all in a big sack," he once said. "If somebody does this today, they think they are running drugs. I fly there, look at the horse and I love the way he looks."

When he and his vet returned the following day for a second look, the horse had an ankle that was obviously filled, or worse.

"He must have kicked the stall," Barrera said, "because it wasn't there the day before. So the vet won't okay the deal."

The horse turned out to be Crafty Admiral, who won the Brooklyn Handicap, the Washington Park Handicap, the Gulfstream Park Handicap twice, and half a million dollars. He also sired Won't Tell You, the dam of Affirmed.

"If I'd have taken Crafty Admiral to Mexico, who knows what would have happened to him?" Barrera liked to say. "But one thing is for certain: There never would have been Affirmed."

And without Carmen Miramontes, there would be no Larry Barrera. Laz Barrera met Carmen, the daughter of a newspaper executive, at a dance in Mexico City. It was 1948. He cut in - the fate of her original dance partner is not known - and they soon began to date.

She had been called "Chacha" since she was a child and as a young, athletic woman, the nickname stuck. She was 24 when she met Laz Barrera, juggling a full-time job with daily practice sessions as a diver of Olympic potential. She was at the pool early each morning, about the time Lazaro and his pals would drive by on the way to the Hippodromo Race Course to train their horses.

"He would tell me later how he would see me on the board, wearing my red suit or my black suit," Carmen recalled. "Sometimes, on the real cold mornings, the steam would rise from my body when I got out of the pool."

They were married in May of 1949.

Today, Carmen, 79, lives in her townhouse near the La Costa resort, just north of Del Mar Racetrack. She attends yoga classes, bowls once a week, and volunteers at two local hospitals, serving as an interpreter for patients who can communicate only in Spanish. She wears a name tag that reads, "Buenas Amigas."

The high walls of her living room and entryway are adorned with photos and portraits of her husband and his horses, and at the end of the dining room rises a massive case filled with dozens of treasures of American racing. Chief among them is the scaled-down trainer's replica of the three-sided Triple Crown trophy earned by Affirmed.

When he embarked upon the 1978 Triple Crown trail, Affirmed was accompanied by Larry Barrera, groom Juan Alaniz, and exercise rider Jose Ithier. Laz joined them from his large California stable as each of the three races approached, and from time to time 17-year-old jockey Steve Cauthen would stop by, just to take a look at his sleek red ride.

"Affirmed was one of the nicest horses you could ever be around," Larry recalled. "He was playful, but he would never bite you, and he was very intelligent. Affirmed had that glow in his eye, the glow of a champion, and he knew what was going on around him all the time.

"He had the body of a Frank Shorter-type long-distance runner, compared to Alydar, who was a very powerful-looking horse," Larry went on. "And Affirmed had a rhythm that was like a machine. He'd make it look so easy that I believe he'd demoralize other horses running next to him."

In the early 1980's, Larry embarked upon his own training career, applying the lessons he had learned from Laz. He sent out Rich Cream to set a world's record for seven furlongs, First Albert to win the Swaps Stakes, and Image of Reality to win the Milady Handicap over his father's champion, It's in the Air. Image of Reality went on to become the granddam of Empire Maker, the colt given the best chance of upsetting Funny Cide's Triple Crown ride.

But the younger Barrera squandered his promising momentum as a head trainer. Then, in April of 1991, the father died and the son sank from sight. Around the racetrack, Larry Barrera became a rumor, a ghost, a sad tale of what might have been.

"My ground zero was Sept. 7, 2000," Larry said. "I was living in Las Vegas. Living the same day, in and out, for four or five years. The person I loved most was a girl that I lived with. This was a girl 29 years old, who loved me more than anything. Her dream was for me to get off the [drugs] and finally put my life in order. When she died in my arms, because of the drugs she had done, I'd had enough. I knew I had a purpose. Her name was Linda Moore.

"The hardest thing I ever had to do in my life was call her mother and give her the news that her daughter had died. And this is what saved me. She could have blamed me, could have called me the worst names. But her response was, 'Listen, my daughter chose the road she chose, and she chose it to be with you. God forgives you, and I forgive you. But I will only forgive you if you do not let my daughter have died in vain. Go and get yourself some help and become a human being again.' "

A week later, Barrera was in a hospital undergoing detox. After that, he checked into Promises, a West Los Angeles drug rehab center.

"It was so hard, so hard," Carmen Barrera said. "I would drive up there at night and go to sessions for the family members. I didn't know, all those years, when I would say, 'Stop this. What are you doing!' it was the wrong thing. So I learned. And now I pray that he keeps going to those sessions, because he won't get another chance."

That chance has been facilitated by Aaron Jones and his wife, Marie, who have a dozen horses in Barrera's care at Hollywood Park.

"I'm not doing this for any press, any celebrity," said Jones, 81, who has had more than his share of fame after 30 years in racing. "It's just one of those things in life that makes you feel better. And it's awfully hard to make it in this world if you're totally on your own. You need some help once in a while

"Anyway, a fellow needs work to feel good about himself," Jones said. "I told Larry it was amazing he had any brain cells left. But I thought he still might have the feel for horses he learned from his dad.

"He's promised me that he'll never use drugs again," Jones added. "He said he's going to lead a clean life, and try to make himself happy and his family happy, and that will make me happy. He also knows that the first time he falls off the wagon, he's lost me."

Today Barrera lives in an apartment not far from his work. He follows the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous religiously, submitting to a new way of life filled with regular meetings, healthy associations, and constant calls to his sponsor. He tries to recognize his limitations, and he "rats himself out," in the parlance of the program, whenever a temptation appears.

"This is the hardest thing I've ever done, but it really helps when you have a reason to get up in the morning and have purpose," Barrera said. "It makes it so much easier. I go to sleep every night very comfortable that I put in a good day's work and that I did the best I could."

If that September day three years ago was Barrera's rock bottom, his first real glimpse of any light at the end of the tunnel came on Feb. 2 of 2003, when he sent out the Saint Ballado colt Timber Cruiser to break his maiden for Aaron and Marie Jones on the grass at Santa Anita Park. Larry Barrera, former heroin addict, was back in the winner's circle.

"I couldn't hold back the tears," Barrera said. "I was such a broken person three years ago. I never thought my life would change so dramatically in the last couple of years like it has. And to find myself with the confidence of knowing how this horse would run, what he could do. I'd even told Aaron and Marie the horse was going to win that day."

As Barrera made his way to the winner's circle, his emotions surged and his knees went weak. In the end, to get through the moment, he came to rest on the memories that meant the most.

"I couldn't stop thinking of him," Barrera said. "Of my dad, and of that girl. Of Linda."

Gary Peacock More than 1 year ago