08/25/2010 9:39AM

Tollett playing small ball this meet


AUBURN, Wash. – Bill Tollett arrived at Longacres in 1964, shortly after fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson took up residence in the White House. In the ensuing 46 years, he has saddled more than 1,000 winners up and down the West Coast and trained dozens of stakes victors, none better than Harmony Creek, who finished third in the 1989 Longacres Mile as a 3-year-old.

But after a hot start to the current Emerald Downs meeting, Tollett has had a rather quiet summer. His winning percentage, 22.2 entering the week, ranks third among trainers with at least 50 starters, but without a stakes-caliber runner, he’s a distant 23rd on the earnings list.

He’ll send out two starters in Friday’s feature race, a $10,000 claimer for older horses at 6 1/2 furlongs. A victory would give him 17 for the season. Not bad, but Tollett saddled four stakes winners during his best Emerald season in 2006 and would like to get back there. Grinding it out is tough.

“It’s not a lot of fun, you know?” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and normally we have one or two who are nice horses. The majority of my clients are working people and it’s hard to afford the better ones, but we do what we can with the ones we’ve got.”

Tollett has 12 horses in training. His operation is mostly a family affair – son David is his assistant, grandson Trey rubs horses, and grandson Nicholas gallops them. Team Tollett began the meeting on fire, winning with eight of its first 13 starters. Including Tollett’s 4-for-8 record at Portland Meadows, he kicked off the year on a 12-for-21 heater.

“Normally, we don’t bear down so hard on horses to begin with,” he said. “But the purses were so small this year, we really had to crack on every horse we ran. Unfortunately, we had three or four who won their first start and got injured.”

Tollett was born in San Antonio, worked on ranches as a young man and bought his first racehorse, a Quarter Horse, in his early 20s. He had found his life’s work.

“We didn’t have parimutuel betting, so we just matched ‘em up and went from there,” he said. “The next thing I know, I’m up here running horses. It’s almost hard for me to say, but I’m 77 years old now. Where in the world did the years go?”