03/17/2011 12:47PM

Unusual Heat trainer takes opportunities as they come

Benoit & Associates
Barry Abrams, who trained Unusual Heat, started his career in the harness and Standardbred ranks.

Traveling from Israel by boat, the Abrams family − Barry, 9, and David, 4, and their parents − arrived in New York in the fall of 1963.

Nov. 22, 1963, to be exact. Another of those days of infamy − the day President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot.

“We were coming to the land of opportunity,” Barry Abrams said. “We heard about the president on the boat, before we got to the pier. People started crying. We were coming to the land of opportunity, and we didn’t know what to think.”

The Abramses spent just one night in New York, then flew to California, where Barry’s father, a butcher, had been promised a job by a relative.

“My dad spoke very little English,” Abrams said, “but it didn’t make any difference. Butchers have their own language. A chicken’s a chicken.”

Born in Minsk, Belarus, Abrams and his family lived in Poland before they settled briefly in Israel. While attending college, Barry, who had no previous ties to racing, began working for a family friend around the barns during the harness season at Hollywood Park. Eventually, he worked himself up to assistant trainer, and in 1978 he moved to the Meadowlands to train Standardbreds. That was the start of a career that led him to Unusual Heat, the leading stallion in California.

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In New Jersey, Abrams trained Guts, a pacer who won 36 races, including 10 in a row to start his 3-year-old season, and earned $1.6 million. When The Jockey Club rejected the name Nutzapper for one of Abrams’s Thoroughbreds, he changed the name to Guts.

“He would have been another good one,” Abrams said, “but he got hurt and that cut short his career.”

Guts was a son of Unusual Heat.

Abrams returned to Southern California, worked away from the track as a carpet installer, then became an assistant trainer for Roger Stein, himself a cross-over from the harness ranks.

Abrams took out his own Thoroughbred trainer’s license in 1993. His best year was 2008, when the stable racked up almost $3 million in purses. Golden Doc A and Lethal Heat, both sired by Unusual Heat, were the stars for Abrams that year.

Much of the time, Abrams works in the claiming ranks. He bought Famous Digger out of a race for $40,000, and he won five stakes before being sold to Japanese interests for more than a million dollars.

When people say Unusual Heat is a fluke, Abrams says it’s not surprising that he became a top sire.

“He’s by Nureyev, who’s one of the greatest sires of sires,” he said. “But because he stands in California, there’s a tendency to dismiss him. If we lived in Kentucky, he’d be more highly regarded nationally.”

In 2005, on his 51st birthday, Abrams was diagnosed with throat cancer. Those were some hard times for his wife, Dyan, and their two children. Abrams underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments and said he is healthy now.

“It was a big scare,” he said.

Golden Doc A is named after two of the doctors who treated him.

“I’ve been lucky all my life,” Abrams said. “But after the cancer, I’m just happy to wake up in the morning.