02/27/2014 5:19PM

For Jacobson, the claim is his game

Tom Marks
David Jacobson won 164 races at Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga in 2013, a record for a single year on the New York Racing Association circuit.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. – David Jacobson has become a dominant force in New York racing, succeeding primarily at the claiming game with an aggressive style that enabled him to set a record for wins on the circuit in 2013 while drawing criticism from those who feel he sometimes pushes his horses too hard.

Seven years into his return to Thoroughbred racing after his license was revoked for alleged neglect of a horse, Jacobson, 59, has vaulted to the top of a circuit once dominated by his controversial father, Howard “Buddy” Jacobson, and his legendary great-uncle, Hall of Fame trainer Hirsch Jacobs.

Teamed with Drawing Away Stable, a racing partnership that has approximately 160 members, Jacobson has crafted the top claiming outfit on the New York Racing Association circuit. Of the record 164 races Jacobson won at Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga in 2013, 89 were for Drawing Away. Jacobson owns a piece of almost all the Drawing Away horses. Jacobson won 18 races with horses for whom he was listed as the sole owner.

Nationally, Jacobson won 188 races in 2013, and his horses earned purses totaling $7,545,503, placing him ninth and 11 in those categories.

In 2012, Jacobson claimed 129 horses. In 2013, that number ballooned to 189. Some of the horses Jacobson claims quickly get dropped in class, where they often get claimed by other trainers. Some are raised in class, such as Strapping Groom, whom Jacobson took for $35,000 on May 24 and who three months later won the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga. Strapping Groom will be heavily favored in Saturday’s Grade 3, $200,000 Tom Fool Handicap at Aqueduct.

Discerning which horses to run at what level is “my job,” said Jacobson, who as of Feb. 25 had 75 horses stabled at Aqueduct. He is assisted by former trainer Frank LaBoccetta Sr., who once saddled a Kentucky Derby favorite, Air Forbes Won, in 1982.

“I’m a licensed horse trainer. How am I able to decide that I claimed Strapping Groom for $35,000 and won the Forego?” Jacobson said. “That horse has got to be feeling really good unless you want to accuse me that I’m hopping him up with something, but that horse has got to be doing really good, and the horse has been tested and retested and [been under] surveillance.

“That’s my job, and I’m good at it, and I’m getting better, and it’s just scaring a lot of people,” Jacobson added. “Because if I’m doing this, and I’m doing this the way that I’m saying I’m doing it, there’s a lot of people out there [saying], ‘Can’t beat this guy.’ ”

In 2012, Jacobson shared the NYRA trainers’ title with Richard Dutrow Jr., each having won 110 races. In 2013, with Dutrow serving a 10-year ban imposed by state regulators for numerous medication infractions, Jacobson won 164 races, 47 more than Todd Pletcher, who was second. Jacobson’s purse earnings of $7.2 million ranked him third in New York behind Pletcher and Chad Brown.

Jacobson started 731 horses, 217 more than Rudy Rodriguez, who ranked second among starters at NYRA tracks in 2013.

There are times when Jacobson will run the same horse every few days. In December, when he was chasing the record, Jacobson ran Score Boyera three times in 12 days and Moments Notiz three times in 20 days. Another horse, El Oh El, raced four times in 20 days from Dec. 22 to Jan. 10. Moments Notiz and El Oh El each won twice. Score Boyera had a win and a second.

“I can understand how people get angry with me running horses back quickly, but I feel when they run back quickly in certain situations that I decide – it’s not every horse – it’s healthy for the horse,” Jacobson said.

Those who criticize Jacobson for running horses back on short rest believe it can lead to horses breaking down. Since he returned to training in July 2007, Jacobson has had six racing-related fatalities from 2,619 starters, according to New York State Gaming Commission records, including two within a recent one-week span.

One of those was a bit of a fluke, as Coronate dumped his rider while crossing the finish line and suffered injuries running into the harrow yard. One week later, Uncle Smokey broke his left foreleg in a race. Last summer at Saratoga, the popular gelding Saginaw sustained fatal injuries during a race.

“Whenever a horse breaks down or is pulled up on the track, even if it’s my competitors’ horses, it’s horrible for the horse, but also it’s not healthy and good for racing,” Jacobson said. “I get angry.”

Typically, when someone succeeds like Jacobson, he is often thought to be cheating. Following a four-win afternoon at Belmont Park on May 23, NYRA and the New York Gaming Commission placed round-the-clock security at Jacobson’s barn for several months.

“If that will give people confidence that I’m not doing anything wrong, I have no problem with it,” Jacobson said about the security.

At the time security was put in place, Jacobson was winning at a 28 percent clip. He finished the meet 27 for 108 (25 percent) and set a record for wins at a Belmont spring-summer meet with 44.

At Saratoga, Jacobson won 16 races – twice as many as he had previously at that meet – from 71 starters, including his first Grade 1 win on the flat with Strapping Groom.

At Saratoga, Jacobson’s horses were tested for banned substances twice in a one-week span, according to NYRA steward Braulio Baeza Jr. Jacobson received “no warnings of any potential levels of anything,” according to a spokesman with the New York Gaming Commission.

Since his return to training, Jacobson has not had a single positive test for a banned race-day substance in New York. He has had three positive tests out of town – one positive each at Penn National (for clenbuterol in 2009), Laurel Park (phenylbutazone in 2009), and Thistledown (clenbuterol in 2010).

Regarding the positive at Laurel, which Jacobson said he was told was the second-highest level in the history of Maryland racing, Jacobson said, “I sent one of my employees there, and he decided that they don’t test for Bute at Laurel. He gave him a whole tube of Bute an hour before the race.”

Jacobson’s most egregious violation in New York was claiming a horse from Winning Move Stable, which at the time had a partner who also was a partner in Drawing Away Stable. Because Jacobson trains for Drawing Away, it was a violation, and the stewards voided the claim and fined Jacobson $1,500.

Jacobson’s 164 victories broke the record of 159 set by Gary Contessa in 2007. Contessa led all trainers on the circuit in wins from 2006-09, mostly playing the claiming game that Jacobson now dominates. Contessa said Jacobson plays the claiming game “as well as anybody I’ve ever seen do it.”

“He’s got the background to be a good horseman,” Contessa added. “I don’t know anything about what kind of horseman he is, but he’s a damn good manager of his business, and his business is Jacobson Stable, and he’s doing it right, and that’s what you got to do when you’re leading trainer. And no matter what, when you’re in that position, you’re going to have tons of detractors telling you what a [jerk] you are, what a butcher you are, what a cheater you are. But I see it, after being [on top], he’s properly running a very well-oiled machine.”

When one trainer dominates things as Jacobson does, it can be a deterrent to bettors and other horsemen. Martin Panza, NYRA’s new director of racing operations, said he has no problems with Jacobson but mentioned that changes to the racing program could alter the landscape.

“As we make changes to the condition book and create some house rules, I think it’ll level out the playing field a little bit,” Panza said. “But David is a very intelligent trainer. He’s got a lot of financial backing that allows him to play the game, and he understands how to play the game. It’s no different than what Bobby Frankel did 30 years ago.”

Son, ‘You’re getting on a plane’

Jacobson grew up in Queens with his younger brother, Doug, who helps manage the racing stable. Jacobson was 9 years old when his father, Buddy, in 1963 won the first of what would be five NYRA training titles in a six-year span.

“When my father was winning races, I was not involved in the racing at all,” said Jacobson, who added that when he would come to the barn, “I used to play cowboys and Indians and stack the bales of hay and straw, and that would be my fort.”

Jacobson’s interest in racing began to grow at a time when his father was out of the sport, owing in part to a suspension he received in Maryland and in part to a fight with NYRA management that severely limited his stall allotment, essentially forcing him out.

At age 16, Jacobson worked for his great-uncle, Eugene Jacobs, one of three brothers of David’s grandmother, Florence, who all trained horses.
At 18, when Jacobson got in trouble for not attending school, Buddy Jacobson came to him and said, “Listen, get a few things. You’re getting on a plane in an hour.”

Buddy Jacobson was sending his son to California to work as a groom for Frankel, who had worked for Buddy before going out on his own in the late 1960s. David Jacobson worked for Frankel for two years before his father summoned him back to New York in 1976 after he was able to get stalls at New York, with the help of prominent businessman and horse owner Jerome Castle. The Jacobsons trained for Castle as well as, for a short time, James Edwards’s Audley Farm.

Buddy Jacobson left racing in 1977, and a year later, he would be involved in the killing of a restaurateur, Jack Tupper, for which he was convicted in 1980.

David Jacobson took over the stable and had modest success through 1981.

In the fall of 1981, Jacobson was accused of mistreatment of the horse Hugable Tom, who had to be euthanized. Jacobson was accused of failing to provide Hugable Tom with adequate food and medical attention, though Jacobson denies to this day that that was the case.

“He had a bad knee,” Jacobson said. “He developed laminitis on the other foot, which is common when there’s an injury. The one mistake we made was we should have put him down sooner. But he was a well-known horse, he was a good horse, we were trying to save him.”

Jacobson’s license was suspended in 1981 and, on Jan. 26, 1982, his license to train and own racehorses was revoked by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board.

No interest in racing

Following the revocation of his license, Jacobson got into the real estate business his father had started during the time he was suspended in the early 1970s. Today, Jacobson runs East Village Property Management LLC, which manages seven apartment buildings with approximately 1,200 tenants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

“I put my money up with a few family members, bought a building similar to what my father did,” Jacobson said. “I worked the building, I co-oped it and bought two more buildings. Just like with horses, I started doing well, got a lot of investors, and was able to parlay it into what we have now. . . . I make a very good living from the real estate.”

During that time, Jacobson said he had no interest in horse racing.

“Never watched it,” he said. “I think I happened to watch a Kentucky Derby once because I was flicking through the channels. I saw the last half of the race.

“I was not sour, I was not angry. I was very upset with a handful of people with that whole Hugable Tom thing. Anyone that was on the racetrack who knew me knew I took very good care of my horses. I have always loved and taken care of my horses. I loved the racing game. I loved the business of horse racing.”

Michael C. Ricatto owned horses with both Jacobson and his father. In 2006, an aging and ailing Ricatto wanted to get back in the game. He convinced Jacobson to come back as well.

In February 2007, Jacobson applied for a trainer’s license but was denied, being granted a non-valid receipt, which allowed him on the grounds but did not allow him to participate in racing. That May, Jacobson applied for and was granted an assistant trainer’s license, and he went to work for Diane Balsamo.

According to Jacobson, the state did background checks on him, which included getting character references from several people. Jacobson had become a big supporter of Little League baseball for underprivileged children, helping fund and coach teams in the Bronx.

“I was very active coaching the teams, organizing the league, getting the funding for the fields,” Jacobson said.

In July 2007, Jacobson was granted his trainer’s license, and on opening day of the 2007 Saratoga meet, he won with the second horse he started, Again and Again, for Ricatto.

“The whole idea was to get Mr. Ricatto to the races and enjoy, in the later part of his life, the thing that he loved more than anything in the world, and we did,” Jacobson said.

But Jacobson loved being around horses again, and he intended to stay. It was believed that the opening of a casino at Aqueduct was imminent, and purses were going to skyrocket. Of course, that didn’t happen until fall 2011.

“That was the part where I thought I could make this a profitable business,” Jacobson said. “That took longer than I thought.”

In the winter of 2008, Jacobson met Ed Boden, the managing partner for Drawing Away Stable. Drawing Away puts together racing partnerships whose members pay a one-time administration fee as well as a fee equal to 10 percent of the claiming price of the horse they take. Whatever percentage of a horse that remains, Jacobson takes as owner. Also, Jacobson pays the bills.

“We now have a very, very successful business plan that works very good for Drawing Away and very good for me, and we work very well together, and we’re very realistic on where our horses should be placed,” Jacobson said.

“Things have gone well,” Boden said. “David and I can deal with each other. We don’t always agree. I defer to him 100 percent. He is, to me, the best trainer in New York. I don’t know anything about horses. I would never say, ‘Why are you dropping this horse? Why aren’t you in this race?’ That’s probably why we get along – he has his area, I have my areas. When we each have problems, we talk about it. We always work things out.”

While Jacobson’s main focus is New York, when he has a horse who he feels can no longer compete on this circuit, he is not averse to sending it out of town and running for a low claiming price.

In 2013, Jacobson won 11 races from 43 starters at Laurel and 10 races from 40 starters at Suffolk Downs. Jacobson said his goal in doing that is to find a level at which the horse can successfully perform.

“I have a reputation of dropping horses down,” Jacobson said. “I don’t look at it that way. I run horses where I think they can win, the best spot where we can win a race. It’s not about dropping down.”

A ‘wake-up call’

Jacobson said that when he feels that a horse’s racing days are over, he tries to find him a home. A recent situation demonstrated that things don’t always work out as planned.

Jacobson trained the horse Toque, whom he claimed for $25,000 last March. He ran the horse once at Monmouth and once at Suffolk, where the horse was pulled up in a $4,000 claiming race.

Jacobson retired the horse, giving him to a woman who had a farm in Massachusetts. That woman wound up giving the horse to someone else, and Toque was later found at an auction house that is closely associated with horse slaughter.

Once alerted to the fact, Jacobson assisted in getting the horse from the auction to a farm on Long Island he uses for horses requiring a layoff. Unfortunately, Toque was in bad shape when he arrived and had to be euthanized.

The incident created a firestorm on social media, with many directing their anger at Jacobson, though he had done what he felt was proper in that situation. Jacobson was called before the stewards, who exonerated him of any wrongdoing.

“I break the record, win the title, and all of a sudden I’m being attacked for these things that I didn’t do,” Jacobson said. “If anything, I went over and above doing the right thing.”

The Toque incident led some to wonder what happened to other horses whom Jacobson raced at Suffolk but were not claimed. Pocket Cowboys, a multiple New York-bred stakes winner of more than $500,000, eventually found a home at Bridlewood Farm, in Ocala, Fla., where his sire, Wild Event, once stood. Iron Lou, twice beaten at Suffolk, is back with his breeder, Mrs. Gerald Nielsen, according to Jacobson.

“The responsibility to the horse at that time is to find that horse a home, to make that horse as comfortable and happy as I would want to be when I want to retire,” Jacobson said. “And that’s exactly what we try to do and what we’ve done horse after horse.”

This week, Jacobson and Drawing Away announced an affiliation with Old Friends, a retirement facility in Georgetown, Ky., where as many as 10 horses could be retired to a paddock that Jacobson and Drawing Away would help finance with a $25,000 donation. Two of Jacobson’s former trainees, Ball Four and Tour of the Cat, are already at Old Friends.

“I’m very happy to have this outlet,” said Jacobson, who also will donate $50 per win to Old Friends, a contribution that will be matched by Drawing Away. “I’m very confident, very secure the horses will be well taken care of.”

Though he deals mostly with claiming horses, Jacobson’s taste of stakes success has him wanting more. Over the last two years, Jacobson won 21 stakes, and in Strapping Groom, he has one of the fastest sprinters on the East Coast.

Jacobson participated in his first Breeders’ Cup last fall with Cease, who finished ninth in the Marathon.

Jacobson said he is looking to upgrade his stock with the help of owners like Al Gold, Lawrence Roman, Paul Pompa, and basketball coach Rick Pitino, for whom he trains Cease.

“Who doesn’t want to have a horse in the Derby or the Breeders’ Cup and run those kinds of horses?” Jacobson said. “I absolutely do, and I’m going to get those horses.”

David Jacobson's career training record

Through last Sunday

Year Starts 1st  2nd 3rd Earnings
2014 106 24 17 23 $1,036,319
2013 835 188 150 130 7,545,503
2012 496 132 90 74 4,657,348
2011 334 71 52 62 1,769,255
2010 392 84 66 56 1,785,539
2009 362 56 69 56 1,618,718
2008 469 83 83 82 2,449,699
2007 149 16 29 20 666,549
1982 2 0 0 0 0
1981 126 13 20 18 178,300
1980 101 15 9 13 135,375
1979 108 15 13 18 146,495
1978 157 21 20 29 179,166
1977 392 39 35 45 335,678
1976 35 2 7 7 22,697
Total 4,051 758 660 629 $22,483,783