01/03/2017 3:41PM

Colorful New England trainer Carlos Figueroa dies

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Carlos Figueroa, a legend in New England racing circles, died Tuesday at age 88 at his home in Salem, N.H., not far from the now-defunct Rockingham Park.

His wife, Pearl, reportedly went to wake him, but could not.

Figueroa, a native of Puerto Rico, was nicknamed the "The King of the Fairs" in Massachusetts, and known for his straw Panama hat; loud, flowered shirts; white pants; and pencil-thin mustache.

"He was the most Damon Runyon-esque guy you ever met," said Sam Elliott, the director of racing at Parx, who was a longtime New England racing official.

He also was known for buying cheap horses, nursing them to health, and winning with them. His most famous acquisition was a 7-year-old named Shannon's Hope, whom he bought for $60 and went 5 for 5 with in an eight-day span in 1963.

Shannon's Hope won a $1,000 claiming race at the Weymouth Fair, south of Boston, on Aug. 17 and paid $11.80. Figueroa ran him back on Aug. 20, opening day of the Marshfield Fair, 18 miles away, and Shannon's Hope won again, paying $15.60.

Shannon's Hope was given a day off and then won races on Aug. 22 ($4.80), Aug. 23 ($4.20), and Aug. 24 ($5.80) - the latter race over the protests of the local humane society.

There are many other stories about Figueroa, like the time he got lost for two days trying to van a horse from Rhode Island to Finger Lakes Race Track. Possibly nobody knows more of these tales than Michael Blowen, the founder of Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Kentucky.

While Blowen was working as the movie critic for the Boston Globe, he spent his mornings for several years in the late 1990's helping Figueroa around his barn at Suffolk Downs, Rockingham Park, and on the fair circuit.

"The fair circuit in those days was like the Wild West," Blowen said. "Anything went. It was a great introduction to racing, and if it wasn't for my time with Carlos and all those $3,500 claimers, there probably wouldn't be an Old Friends."

Blowen's favorite Figueroa story centers around Summer Attraction, a 2-year-old of 1997. Summer Attraction won a two-furlong maiden race with a four-horse field at Suffolk by a half-length. The win encouraged Figueroa to take Summer Attraction to Saratoga for the Sanford Stakes.

Although Summer Attraction was totally outclassed and finished last, the only trainer the media wanted to talk to in the paddock before the race was Figueroa, who gladly held court.

"Carlos loved life," Blowen said. "Everything was a joke to him. He was always kidding around. When a reporter asked him before the race what he thought his chances of winning were, he told him, 'If I win they are going to have to rename this race the Sanford and Son.' "

Summer Attraction, now 22, is a pensioner at Old Friends.

Figueroa is survived by his wife, six children, two brothers, five sisters, and 14 grandchildren.

Visitation will be Friday from 3-7 p.m. at Douglas & Johnson Funeral Home in Salem, N.H., with a time for sharing memories after 5 p.m. There is no funeral service. Cremation will follow.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to assist with funeral expenses be made to Douglas & Johnson, 214 Main St., Salem, NH 03079 or (603) 898-8848.

A GoFundMe page has been set up to help with expenses at https://www.gofundme.com/in-memory-of-zcarlos-figueroa