04/16/2015 2:45PM

Hovdey: Big stars have history of playing small towns


“There isn’t anything the matter with going to West Virginia.”

So sayeth John Nerud, the man of two centuries, who was not the least bit surprised to hear that Shared Belief, America’s best racehorse, was going for the big money at the bullring Saturday in the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic. Eight will run against him going three turns to get 1 1/8 miles.

Then again, Nerud knows the score. It was 48 years ago this summer that the trainer showed up to win a $75,000-added race at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire with Dr. Fager, who at the time had finished worse than first only once in nine starts and was looked upon as the only 3-year-old who could be mentioned in the same breath as Damascus, the winner of the Preakness and Belmont.

Nerud was a New York horseman, and Dr. Fager was a New York horse who occasionally would stray off Broadway to places like New Jersey or Chicago if the race was right. A detour to New England, though, seemed like a reach.

Nerud sent Dr. Fager to Rockingham because of his personal relationship with track president Louis Smith, which is one of a handful of reasons the superstars of the sport sometimes wander from the big rooms to play before grateful crowds in the hinterlands. Personal relationships, relentless promotion, tons of money, and just the right amount of luck – alone or in serendipitous combination – can result in Dr. Fager or Shared Belief showing up where you’d least expect them.

John Alessio of Tijuana’s Agua Caliente Racetrack started working on a Round Table–Gallant Man match race in the fall of 1957 when they were two of the three most accomplished horses in North America. Bold Ruler was the other one.

Alessio dangled a purse of a hundred grand and a national TV deal, but even that could not compete with late-season East Coast events. By the following year, Allesio gave up on the match-race idea and settled for Round Table, who made the trip across the U.S.–Mexico border to win the $51,000 Caliente Handicap on May 11, 1958, by 9 1/4 lengths. The race, which had been moribund for years, drew more headlines than it deserved because the winning purse made Round Table the game’s third millionaire. It was also one of 14 races won by Round Table in 1958 on his way to being voted Horse of the Year.

Lou Raffetto, who was running Suffolk Downs, takes no particular credit for convincing Bill Mott to send Allen and Madeleine Paulson’s Cigar to his track in June 1995 for the Massachusetts Handicap. At the time, the race had been dormant for five years, and the last time a horse comparable to Cigar’s growing stature had competed in Boston was 1973, when Riva Ridge came to town.

At the beginning of 1995, Raffetto had set up a plan that would make a horse who won the Gulfstream Park Handicap, Oaklawn Handicap, and Pimlico Special eligible for a $500,000 bonus with a win in the big one at Suffolk. Raffetto thought that horse would be reigning Horse of the Year Holy Bull, but the colt suffered a career-ending injury in the Donn Handicap in February.

“Then Cigar comes along and wins the first two races,” Raffetto said. “I didn’t know Bill Mott or the Paulsons, and they weren’t even aware of the bonus. Bill said, ‘Let’s see what happens at Pimlico,’ but it sounded good to him.”

After winning the Special, Cigar took tiny Suffolk Downs by storm and earned $650,000 in purse and bonus money. The experience left his people with a good-enough taste to return in 1996 for less money.

“I’d like to think by then we’d established a pretty good relationship,” Raffetto said.

It was the time-tested friendship between trainer Sonny Hine and Lone Star Park consultant Chick Lang that took Skip Away to the track in the middle of Texas in April 1997 for the first running of the $250,000 Texas Mile at the newly christened facility. As favors go, it was a big one.

Skip Away, the reigning 3-year-old champ, had started the year with second-place finishes in major Florida stakes, which meant the Texas race had to be a slam dunk to get things back on track. Instead, Skip Away finished a dull and distant third at 3-5, ending a trip described later by Hine as a “catastrophe.” At least Hine’s good deed did not go severely punished. Skip Away ended the season by winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Nerud’s gesture of goodwill toward Smith went back to the trainer’s fledgling days in the business.

“Lou Smith treated the owners and trainers better than at any racetrack in America,” Nerud said this week from his Long Island, N.Y., home. “He was a good friend and helped me out more than once. When I left New England to train in New York, he told me, ‘John, I wish you good luck. And if you get short of money, remember your friends.’ That’s why I took that horse up there, for my friend.”

Of course, when Dr. Fager ran at Rockingham again in the New Hampshire Sweepstakes Classic, friendship had nothing to do with it. The purse was $250,000, the most added money offered anywhere in North America that season.

“Well, yes,” Nerud said with a chuckle, “that was a help getting him back there.”