08/10/2010 12:53PM

Some stories touch racing's hidden heart


 With America awash with sunshine on both coasts, last Saturday’s racing features added summer fuel to warm a racing man’s heart.

Television carried the message: People still love this sport, and the big and festive ramps were packed at Saratoga, Del Mar, and at the $1.5  million Hambletonian at the threatened Meadowlands.

As usual, there was enough Blame to go around at Saratoga, as the new Horse of the Year candidate flashed to his fifth straight victory, beating favored Quality Road.

Across the country, the charismatic Zenyatta was the magnet at Del Mar.

Good horses still are the main answer to racing’s problems, but that is vast oversimplification. They cannot run often enough to provide the drama of continuity, and there is a very limited supply.

Which is where Lisa’s Booby Trap come in.

You probably never heard of her before last Friday, and with good cause. Realistically, she and Zenyatta should have traded places.
Lisa’s Booby Trap belonged at Del Mar, where her incredible and improbable story would have caught the eye of Hollywood producers.

Zenyatta should have been racing at Saratoga, casting aside the careful cloak of geographic domination that probably cost her Horse of the Year last season, and running against class horses at the sport’s summer capital of quality.

Bill Finley told Lisa’s unlikely story in a feature that the New York Times spread across all six columns of its racing page.

As Finley wrote it, this giveaway unnamed cripple was bought by a down-and-out 56-year-old Finger Lakes assistant trainer with no money, “just a station wagon and a dog.” The breeder had given the clubfooted mare away, and the recipient of that largesse also gave up on her, selling her for $1,000. The third owner also found her worthless, and when the hard-luck trainer, Tim Snyder, asked if the filly was for sale, the owner said the price was $4,500. Snyder had only $2,000 in savings, kept in his boot for safety, to fulfill his dream of owning his own horse. He offered to pay it to the second owner with an IOU for the other $2,500, to come with the unlikely possibility of the filly winning it.

The name came as a tribute to Snyder’s wife, Lisa, who died of cancer seven years ago, and as homage to a favored strip joint in Florida.

With time and patience that no big trainer would be willing to spend, Snyder worked with his one-horse charge. As an itinerant horseman who really knew horses, he persevered, experimenting with shoes, and finally getting Lisa’s Booby Trap to the races.

She won her first start by 17 3/4 lengths, her second by 10 1/2, and her third, another easy open-length victory, all at Finger Lakes. An agent said he had an owner who would give $500,000, and Snyder turned it down, saying he was having “far more fun than the money could bring me.”

Last Friday Lisa’s Booby Trap went big-time, in the $70,000 Loudonville at Saratoga, and won again, remaining unbeaten in five starts. She moves up to the Victory Ride, a Class 3 stakes race, on Aug. 28.

On the backstretches of American racetracks there are hundreds of other buried feature stories, waiting to be dug out. If time were devoted to doing it, instead of turning out routine “Today’s feature is . . . .” the sport could gallop far ahead of where it now is staggering around in coverage. And if track photographers accompanied the people seeking the stories, instead of peddling winners’ circle photos solely, racing could race to new publicity.

I learned this lesson years ago, scrounging the backstretch at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park for features, and I have told the story often as Publicity 101.

I was seeking, futilely, a story from the trainer of a new star.

I prodded and begged and cajoled, but he remained virtually silent, saying he was doing nothing unusual or newsworthy with his charge.
I finally gave up, and turned to leave.

“You should talk to my grandmother,” the trainer said.

“What does she have to do with the horse?” I asked, and he said, “She really is the one training this horse. She is 83 and has only one arm.”

Riches await those who look for them. If you dig hard enough and long enough, you are likely to find racing gold.