02/23/2012 1:31PM

Fair Grounds trainer Amoss finds success with hardnosed tactics

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Barbara D. Livingston
Tom Amoss’s cold, competitive approach to claiming has made him the target of criticism − and a few unflattering nicknames.

The Fair Grounds barn office of trainer Tom Amoss sits just a few yards from the clocker’s stand, a hub of morning activity. Horsemen parade to the stand to watch their stock train and to communicate with the clockers. It’s a place to do a little business and pass a bit of gossip, a focal point of the backstretch community. Amoss chats and verbally jousts with some of the visitors. Others keep a distance, cast a cold eye. And even those on superficially friendly terms with Amoss realize their horses could wind up in his stable.

Amoss grew up among the affluent in New Orleans, but there is nothing genteel about his approach as a trainer. A quarter-century into his career, Amoss still runs a claiming outfit. There are tendons to touch and workouts to plot and even dreams to dream, but the Amoss stable runs like a business. Other horsemen, in the end, are competition, not comrades.

“I’ll claim off anyone except my good friend Al Stall,” he said. “It’s hard to make friends that way.”

Amoss’s mercenary approach has not made him a popular man. Racetrackers sarcastically call him “Training Tom” or “Famous Amoss.” Much of that is typical envy of success. Amoss, 50, has started more than 10,400 horses and has won at a remarkable 24 percent clip. For 12 years in a row, he has won more than 100 races, and in 2011 Amoss sent out a career-best 163 winners. His strike rate last year was 31 percent, one of the highest marks in the country. His runners earned purses worth more than $4 million. But the mocking monikers point at a deeper question: For all his winning, for all his concise management, can Tom Amoss handle a really good horse?

Some high-powered claiming stables – Bobby Frankel’s, for instance – evolved into allowance-and-stakes based operations, but Amoss’s hasn’t seen a surge in quality. Between 1997 and 2003, he won 12 graded stakes. The last three calendar years, he has won four. Amoss’s only Grade 1 winner remains Heritage of Gold, who came into his barn a finished product in 1999.

“I don’t think there’s any question that as a trainer you’d like to go down the line and say here’s a stakes horse, there’s a stakes horse, but that’s not what my stable is made up of and it never has been,” Amoss said. “In a perfect world I’d love to have things be like that, but I’ve made a very good living doing what I do.”

A horse of some quality resides in his barn now. Shared Property, a handsome brute of a young 3-year-old, starts in the Grade 2, $300,000 Risen Star Stakes on Saturday at Fair Grounds. Shared Property won the Arlington-Washington Futurity at 2, and in his first start this year, he finished third in the Lecomte Stakes after breaking from a tough outside post and racing with only a few timed workouts under his belt. Despite another wide draw, he has a chance to improve in the Risen Star and earn a spot in the $1 million Louisiana Derby, but Shared Property is no can’t-miss silver bullet. His debut win, at Ellis Park, produced a good-looking four-length victory, and he beat talented Take Charge Indy in the Arlington race before checking in a close sixth as the favorite in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland to end his 2-year-old season. And while his Lecomte was encouraging, it’s unclear if that race as a whole was much good: The winning time was significantly slower than in the Silverbulletday Stakes for fillies on the same card, and traditionally, the Lecomte has not produced solid Triple Crown hopefuls.

“I know Shared Property is a good horse, and I have a lot of enthusiasm for where he might lead, but I’m not going to let myself have any of those other thoughts yet,” Amoss said.

Amoss never has more than a few promising young horses each year. He has started two horses in the Kentucky Derby, but neither had much chance: Lone Star Sky finished 15th in 2003, Backtalk last of 20 in 2010.

Amoss was among the first trainers employed by high-profile owner Ahmed Zayat, who often makes six-figure auction buys and who has become a Triple Crown regular, but the connection didn’t last.

“It was a volatile relationship, and I was never comfortable with it,” Amoss said. “When it ended, he told me that this would be the biggest mistake I ever made. Maybe it was.”

Instead, Amoss still claims and hustles and turns over stock. He has a wide client base, about 20-strong at the moment. For them, he wins races and often makes money.

“It’s been a profitable relationship,” prominent owner Maggi Moss said of her eight-year association with Amoss.

“Believe me, if I win the lottery and quit training, Tom Amoss would be my trainer,” said Stall, a friend of Amoss’s since their New Orleans childhoods, and his barn neighbor at Fair Grounds. “That’s a very hardworking operation over there.”

It was through Stall, schoolmate and friend, that Amoss was introduced to the world of the track. Stall’s father was an owner, and the Stall family spent plenty of time at Fair Grounds.

“We’d go to the races together, and we’d handicap together,” Amoss said.

Amoss, who is married with two college-aged daughters, is part of a large and successful nuclear family that had no ties to racing. His father was the CEO of the Lykes Steamship Company, his mother the author of children’s books. There are six Amoss boys, of which Tom is second-youngest. The youngest, John, is a doctor, employed by the New Orleans Saints. The eldest, Billy, heads a Washington D.C.-based non-profit that brings pediatric care to developing nations. Two more brothers, Mark and Bob, run a New Orleans-based import-export business. Jim Amoss is the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Three brothers attended Yale. Another went to Duke, the fifth to Williams, an exclusive liberal arts school.

Amoss said he neglected his studies before going off to Louisiana State University, but at LSU he turned a corner between his sophomore and junior years and graduated with a marketing degree. Amoss had harbored at least a vague ambition to work at the track since early in high school, and upon his college graduation there weren’t other appealing options.

“The only job I got offered out of school was selling insurance,” he said. “No one was looking to hire Tom Amoss.”

In high school, Stall and Amoss had helped around the barn of legendary local trainer Frankie Brothers, but Stall’s father was one of Brothers’ owners, and the boys were treated with kid gloves. Shortly after leaving LSU, Amoss got hired as a Brothers groom.

“It was much different when I went back to work for real,” Amoss said. “Frankie Brothers was much less nice. I won’t say what my nickname was in that barn, but it started with ‘dumb’ and ended with ‘mother-something.’ ”
Amoss recalled one particular morning working for Brothers.

“Christmas Day, 1983, was the coldest Christmas we ever had,” he said. “I had the first four stalls in the same barn as I train in now. I went in, and the water buckets were frozen. I poured hot water on one, and it cracked just when Frankie was walking by. He let me have it. I remember being in the track kitchen at about 9:30 that morning. I was 21 years old. It’s Christmas morning and the guys were sharing a bottle of Crown Royal. I went to my parents’ house for dinner that night thinking, ‘I’m not sure I really want to do this.’ ”

Amoss didn’t quit then, but he took a job as a racetrack vet’s assistant the following spring. In 1985 and 1986 he worked as an assistant for trainer John Parisella in New York and Larry Robideaux in Louisiana. During the winter of 1986-87, one of Robideaux’s owners wanted to race at Sportsman’s Park in Chicago, and that gave Amoss his first chance as a head trainer. Back in Louisiana the next year, Amoss got hooked up with owner-breeder John Franks, who had a huge operation.

“That was it,” Amoss said. “Things took off. Mr. Franks was always looking for different opportunities. He made me.”

In just five years, Amoss had gone from a struggling groom to being the boss.

“The old-school philosophy was you had to wait 10 or 15 years to train a horse,” he said. “I was on an accelerated path. I’m sure some people thought I didn’t pay my dues.”

Amoss’s claiming tendencies haven’t endeared him to the backstretch at large, either. Many claiming trainers cleave to a set of unwritten rules: Certain outfits, certain situations are off limits. That’s not how Amoss works. Some trainers who have thought being on friendly terms with Amoss would prevent him from claiming their horses have found out otherwise.

“For years, he didn’t claim off me, and I didn’t claim off him,” said Mike Stidham, who also is based at Fair Grounds during the winter. “We had a personal relationship, and I was disappointed he went against a gentleman’s understanding we had.”

But in the end, horses in claiming races are there to be bought, something that everyone at the track at bottom understands.

“You’re not out there to make friends,” said trainer Mark Shuman, who once worked for owner Mike Gill. Gill was leading owner in the country for several years and often claimed five or six horses every day. “The worse you’re doing, the more friends you have.”

Shuman said he noticed “a 100 percent change” in the way his peers treated him after he went to work for Gill.

“People would make sure they wouldn’t say anything around you,” he said. “If you were around the paddock before a race, you’d see some odd looks. It does make you an outsider. You realized there were no friends.”

Amoss’s decision to take on a second job as an analyst for Television Games Network at Keeneland meets and during the Breeders’ Cup and Kentucky Derby thrust him into an unusual role. Most racing analysts aren’t active participants in the sport, and part of Amoss’s job is to pass public judgment on horses trained by his peers. Amoss appears on the TVG show called The Works, where a host and analysts discuss the strengths and weaknesses of workouts and gallops in the days leading up to the Derby and Breeders’ Cup.

“My job is to call it like I see it, and hopefully, now that I’ve done it for a while, people won’t take it personally when I don’t care for what their horses do,” Amoss said. “I’m much more diplomatic with my words than I used to be.”

Earlier this winter, Amoss was fined $2,500 by Kentucky stewards because a horse he trains tested positive last fall for the Class 4 medication methocarbamol. Methocarbamol, or Robaxin, is a muscle relaxant commonly used for training but illegal on race day. Amoss said he couldn’t comment on the ruling, but did say that “extenuating circumstances” led to the positive test. During his 25-year career, Amoss has never been suspended for any rules violations.

“He does very little vet work at all,” said Moss. “He does the work, not the vets.”

Moss and the Midwest Thoroughbreds of Rich and Karen Papiese represent Amoss’s major claiming owners. Shared Property, a gelded son of Scat Daddy, is owned by Jerry Namy, for whom Amoss has trained two years. Namy, a Texas geologist and oilman, was in a small-plane crash in October 2009. He and the other three people on board survived, but Namy was seriously injured. Shared Property, purchased for $70,000 at a 2-year-old in training sale last spring, is Namy’s first stakes winner.

The horse is easy to get along with now, but that wasn’t always the case. Jay Taylor, who broke Shared Property at his farm outside Lexington, Kentucky, said Shared Property was a rogue when he came to him as a yearling.

“He really behaved badly,” said Taylor, who started working with Shared Property after he failed to meet a mere $12,000 reserve at the Keeneland September yearling sale in 2010. “I fought him every day. He was not that bad to ride, but on the ground he was impossible.”

But after being gelded, Shared Property got down to business and into his training, and when Shared Property was sold in the spring, he was ready to be a racehorse. The way Taylor sees it, Amoss made a decisive move with Shared Property early last summer, taking the new arrival straight into training rather than giving him time off, as is done with many horses purchased at  2-year-old-in-training sales.

“When I saw him work a half-mile at Churchill at the end of June, I was almost as ecstatic because I realized they were actually doing the right thing,” Taylor said. “Somebody was paying attention.”

Said Amoss: “He was sound and of good mind. It was easy to go on with him.”

Amoss said he has become more directly involved with the daily routines since his assistant of 22 years, Frank Bernis, left to become a jockey’s agent in July 2010. Bernis was an integral part of Amoss’s operation, but the stable has kept humming along in his absence, despite the fact no one has stepped into the major role Bernis played.

“It’s safe to say that in a lot of cases, Frank and I claimed together,” Amoss said. “It made me have to be more aware of what was going on at the racetrack and in the barn. I couldn’t depend on Frank to help me out there. Some of the little things I’d gotten away from I’m doing more of now. If someone asks me, ‘How is this horse eating?’ I’m the one who has to be looking in the feed tub. It’s been a little bit of a rebirth for me.”

Still, don’t expect to see Amoss out galloping his own horses. He’s not ever likely to be viewed as a hands-on type of trainer. But Amoss said he doesn’t need the racing world to see him that way.

“I hope I’m viewed as someone who’s honest, who works hard,” he said. “I’d like to think I’d be happy with that.”