08/08/2001 12:00AM

From unknown to ubiquitous


WASHINGTON - Rick Englander's ambitions were modest when he indulged his lifelong passion for horse racing and claimed a mare at Laurel Park for $14,500. "I hoped," he said, "to get a winner's-circle picture and a pass to the track." That transaction in late 1998 was unremarkable - Englander never won a race with his first horse - except for one thing. It marked the beginning of an almost unprecedented success story.

Virtually unknown in Thoroughbred racing two years ago, Englander is now ubiquitous. A 41-year-old from Westchester County, N.Y., he has more than 150 horses in the care of 15 trainers competing in Maryland, Delaware, New York, California, Louisiana, Canada, and other locations. Englander has collected 260 winner's-circle photographs this year, and by the end of 2001 he will have won more races in a single year than any American owner in the last quarter-century.

Of course, many owners have made a splash by spending lavishly on racehorses, but rich newcomers typically enter the game with dreams of winning the Kentucky Derby. Englander has chosen to deal almost exclusively with claiming horses. Instead of seeking a horse who can achieve glory at Churchill Downs, he is thrilled when he claims a $50,000 horse who can step up and win in allowance company.

This is an unusual approach for a big player in Thoroughbred racing, and many people would question whether it is financially sound, but it suits Englander's temperament and background. He is a stock trader, and the cardinal sin in his profession is getting locked into a bad position. If Englander buys at 11 a.m., he is prepared to sell at 11:01. So watching a high-priced yearling munching grass for months isn't his kind of investment. He wants faster action - and found it in the claiming game.

Englander loves the challenge of studying the form and selecting horses to claim. He will gamble on taking well-bred first-time starters; he likes horses bred to run on turf who haven't tried it yet; he tries to find horses who can move immediately into allowance races.

Englander hired trainers at various tracks (choosing them on the basis of high win percentages) and asked them to approve a horse's physical condition before making the claim. Like most owners, Englander was having fun and losing money. Owning racehorses is a bad economic proposition because expenses are high and purses too low. Making money with claimers is especially tough because they eat as much as stakes horses but don't have the upside potential of, say, a Fusaichi Pegasus.

But Englander is a man who plays to win. He analyzed his results and concluded, "If we could win 20 percent of our starts and finish in the money 50 percent of the time, this could be profitable."

In pursuit of that goal, Englander hired two old friends and his father-in-law as full-time employees so that he could operate the business as professionally as possible - using a computer system to monitor all of his stable's activities. He acquired more horses and hired more trainers. "It just snowballed," he said. "It started as a hobby, but now it's a business."

The scope of his operation gives Englander some strategic advantages, enabling him to shuttle his horses from track to track in search of an optimal spot. When he claimed a 6-year-old named Clever Actor at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans this winter for $17,500, he shipped him to Lone Star Park outside Dallas and the horse won an allowance race. Then Clever Actor went to Delaware and captured a $40,000 claiming race. The horse didn't have to improve much to win; Englander's team already knew that he would fit well in these spots.

Englander's success rate increased when he made one significant addition to his already formidable roster of trainers. Almost as soon as he asked Scott Lake to manage one horse for him, he discovered that he and the trainer were kindred spirits. Lake is as driven to be the No. 1 trainer in the U.S. as Englander is to be the top owner, and both approach the game with passion. When Englander sees a horse he wants to claim, he is apt to phone Lake and bubble over: "I love this one!"

Lake said, "Rick is fantastic to deal with. When he picks out horses, he's done his homework. Then you've got to look at them in the paddock and weed them out."

A year after their relationship began, Lake now trains some 50 horses for Englander. "I think Scott is the best horseman in America," Englander said. "He's pretty much the captain of the team. When we have a horse with a problem, he advises us. And when we send horses to Scott, 90 percent of them move up."

Englander employs many other high-powered trainers, including Steve Asmussen, Dale Capuano, and Jerry Hollendorfer, who rank second, third, and fourth behind Lake in total wins this year. One might suspect that there would be some jealousy and rivalry when horses are taken from one and shipped to another. But Englander has managed to keep the trainers functioning as a team. "If Scott sends a horse to Rich Schosberg [in New York]," the owner said, "they'll talk to each other and let each other know everything that's going on. There's no animosity among the trainers."

With his operation running at high efficiency, Englander has achieved one goal: his horses are winning at a 21-percent rate and finishing in the money 50 percent of the time. He also has compiled formidable statistics in another category: money.

The top money-winning owner in the country is almost always one who seeks success in the traditional fashion, dealing with high-quality stock, winning the 3-year-olds classics or Breeders' Cup races. But this year, Englander's runners have earned $6.2 million in purses, putting him No. 1 in the nation and proving that an owner who plays the claiming game can get bottom-line results in addition to the stimulation of nonstop action.