11/18/2012 3:58PM

Bergman: Ex-Californian enjoying banner season at Yonkers

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Gilbert Garcia-Herrera

This slogan should probably read “Go east, young man.”

That’s because transplanted Californian Gilbert Garcia-Herrera has come to the metropolitan New York area and succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.

“I’ve been very lucky,” said Garcia-Herrera about the success of his stable that is on the precipice of capturing the Yonkers Raceway training title for 2012.

“It would definitely mean a lot to me,” said Garcia-Herrera, 50, who sounded as if he would be happy with second place as well.

The decision to come east had a lot to do with things drying up on the West Coast. Though Garcia-Herrera still owns two farms in the Sacramento area that he’s in the process of selling, he made the move initially to Indiana to compete on that circuit. The fact that they didn’t race year-round in Indiana led the trainer to relocate again and move to New Jersey, where he is currently stabled at Magical Acres.

Herrera initially had horses with Lou Pena, but said that was due to his grueling personal schedule.

“In addition to having to go back to California to check on the farms, I’m also in the middle of a difficult divorce,” Garcia-Herrera said.

Thus instead of training his own stock he gave Pena, also a California-based trainer, the job of conditioning his horses.

Fortunately for Garcia-Herrera, he has been able to spend more time on the East Coast over the last nine months and in doing so has been able to build the most successful racehorse stable competing at Yonkers, winning at nearly 40 percent.

“I’m very fortunate to have George Brennan driving my horses,” said Garcia-Herrera, who clearly values Brennan’s experience and expertise on the half-mile track.

While some have questioned how the trainer, who had built a solid stable in California, could be this successful on the East Coast against what appears to be a more competitive training corps, the answer might be surprising.

“The claiming game in California is rather limited. Every now and then a trainer would drop a horse and it would be worth taking. Here there are so many more opportunities to find horses,” said Garcia-Herrera

What has helped Garcia-Herrera is his vision. As a driver and trainer he recognizes what a good horse looks like and also has the input of longtime owner Barbara Arnstine.

“She’s a retired teacher that just loves watching the races,” said Garcia-Herrera. “She called me a few hours ago and told me to watch the number eight horse in the eight race [Friday] at Chester.”

That horse, Fat Mans Alley won but the trainer was a little late and didn’t get a claim in in time.

Garcia-Herrera says that he spends much of his time watching the races on television and looking for horses to purchase or claim.

A native of Guatemala, Garcia-Herrera came to the U.S. in 1982 and went to work for trainer John McGregor, the father-in-law of Hall of Famer Bill O’Donnell. He learned much of the craft as a second trainer for Joe Anderson, who had a powerful stable that shuttled from California to Illinois. With Anderson for some 15 years he learned a great deal, including how to handle a horse imported from New Zealand or Australia. Quite often Anderson would locate horses “down under” and bring them to North America to race.

“You have to treat them a little different. The way they races horses in Australia and New Zealand is totally different to how we do things here,” said Garcia-Herrera. “Joe was great with those horses because he understood how to handle them.”

One might have thought that the trainer would have some trouble adapting to the half-mile track at Yonkers since he based his operation at Cal-Expo in the Sacramento area of California.

“I look for horses that have already shown they can get over the half mile track,” said Garcia-Herrera.

One of the ways Gilbert has built a prominent stable is by putting horses at claiming levels where they can win. Perhaps he does it to a fault, but only in the last few months have other trainers started to claim horses from him.

“People think it’s a good thing when no one wants to claim your horse, but it can work against you too,” said Garcia-Herrera. “I had a horse I was racing at Chester and I really wanted to lose the horse. I put him in as low as I could and he was finishing first and second and I said to a friend `I’m going to have to retire this horse because no one wants to take him.’ Luckily someone finally claimed the horse.”

A few months ago trainers such as Rich Banca and Rene Allard started claiming Garcia-Herrera’s horses at Yonkers and have found some success. While other trainers might take this activity personally Garcia-Herrera has welcomed the situation.

“They’re having some luck with those horses and that’s good,” Garcia-Herrera said.

Initially Garcia-Herrera had focused on claiming horses in the $10,000-$20,000 range because the purses for horses at that level were so attractive. That has given him the ability to compete at Yonkers, Mohegan Sun Pocono, Harrah’s Philadelphia, or even Monticello if he needed to go there. Lately his stable has started to look for and add horses at the $40,000 and $50,000 range.

Garcia-Herrera’s win percentage isn’t the only thing that makes him unique in the sport. He is also a firm believer in owning part of every horse he trains.

“I have partners, not owners,” said Garcia-Herrera.

As the Yonkers meet comes to an end in late December Garcia-Herrera seems in a good position to capture his first training title. He trails leading conditioner P.J. Fraley by just four victories. His horses have won 105 times in 264 starts through Friday, good for local earnings of $1.2 million.

The trainer, who last had a $1 million season in 2003 in California, is poised to break the $2 million mark in 2012 on the East Coast.

I guess you have to go where the gold is.