06/22/2008 11:00PM

Decision to open up a public stable paying off at Penn National

Email

Trainer Murray Rojas is willing to search far and wide to acquire a horse who might prove useful in her ever-growing stable of blue-collar runners.

"Claim . . . buy . . . whatever," said Rojas, 42, who currently has 49 horses stabled at Penn National Race Course and 30 more on the 30-acre farm that she and her husband, former jockey Eddie Rojas, maintain about 10 minutes from the Grantville, Pa., track.

Despite the demands of raising five daughters, ranging in age from 14 to twin 3-year-olds, and keeping tabs on a large string of modestly priced claimers, Rojas has emerged from obsurity to become Penn National's leading trainer.

Often mistaken for a man because of her unusual first name - an old surname that traces back to one of her Irish ancestors - Rojas won a mere 35 races over a five-year span ending in 2004 and only 27 more in 2005.

But once she and her husband made the decision to open up a public stable, in anticipation of the slots-fueled increased purses at Penn National, her business boomed.

She became the first woman in the track's 36-year history to lead the trainer standings in 2007, when she won 124 races at a 20 percent clip, and she stood atop the leader board again with 47 winners through June 19.

Rojas has been working at the racetrack since she was 15, and has been training, first as a longtime assistant to Joe Orseno and then on her own, for about 20 years. She has never saddled a stakes winner. In fact, many of the horses she runs are worth $10,000 or less. That's mainly because she's careful that the horses she acquires, primarily through the claiming box or private sales, fit the condition book at her home track.

"I sure hope to get some better-quality horses," Rojas said. "But I have to get the kind of horses that fit at Penn National. So I mostly look for either old class horses or young horses with conditions."

As an extreme example of Rojas's willingness to take on a project and succeed, consider the case of Noblety, a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Contemplate who was rescued from a trip to the slaughterhouse.

During a brief stint when Rojas and her husband operated as commercial breeders, they bred a mare named Prettyasarose. The resulting foal, Noblety, was destined to be sold for slaughter when the owner failed to pay his bills. A phone caller who traced the foal back to Rojas's farm asked whether she was interested in buying him. She agreed to rescue Noblety for "a couple thousand dollars."

"Now he's my baby," she said. "He still thinks he's my pet."

Noblety didn't do much in his first two starts, then was gelded. Stretched out to a mile and 70 yards and dropped in for a claiming tag, he responded with a 24-length victory. His half-sister Ebony Rose finished second in the Grade 3 Boiling Springs Handicap in 2006, so Rojas said she thinks Noblety has a promising future going long on turf.

Rojas has had similar good success with many of her new acquisitions. Daily Racing Form statistics reveal that she wins with 29 percent of her starters first time off the claim and 27 percent of the time with newly acquired stock making their initial start in her barn.

A few examples of horses who have moved up under her care this season:

o The 3-year-old Toy Soldier, claimed off Rojas's closest competitor among Penn's trainers, Stephanie Beattie. He won two in a row for Rojas, including a first-level allowance with a $21,486 purse.

o Scarbum, another 3-year-old colt, was privately purchased after being unable to win his maiden in nine starts at Calder. He cruised by more than eight lengths running for a $12,000 claiming tag at Penn.

o Real Art, a 4-year-old filly, was claimed for $4,000 in mid-March. She has flourished since being switched to the turf, winning a $10,000 conditioned claimer and a first-level allowance worth $20,800.

"I claim them and then wait and see what I've got," Rojas said. "I try to see where they fit best, and that's not always easy."