01/17/2007 12:00AM

Vestal finds there's no room for the little guy

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Pete Vestal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Pete Vestal has called Louisville home for nearly 30 years, but this is his first full winter here. Vestal, 55, has spent the last 20 winters at Oaklawn Park, and before that at a wide variety of warm-climate venues befitting a lifelong racetracker and veteran trainer.

Not that Vestal really wanted to be here, although he is happy that for the first time he will be able to see every one of the high-school lacrosse games in which his son, Alex, will be playing this spring. No, Vestal would prefer to be training a stable of 20 to 30 horses, just as he has done during most of a career that began in 1978.

Instead, Vestal is out of business.

"I ran out of owners," he said.

Vestal was down to four horses when the Churchill Downs fall meet ended Nov. 25, after which he turned the horses over to his assistant, Mike Johnson, and sold or gave away his tack. Vestal isn't necessarily retired from training, but he isn't counting on the sudden reappearance of a half-dozen or so clients needed to sustain the public stable he ran for all those years.

"I wanted to train horses until I couldn't walk down the shed row," he said. "But I lost money training the last couple of years and just couldn't afford to keep going that way."

The untimely ouster of a trainer with Vestal's accomplishments and savvy should come as a siren call for the sport, or at least as another reminder of how the complexion of the backstretch is changing. The dominance of mega-stables has led to the inevitable demise of trainers with smaller numbers, and Vestal is just the latest poster child for how that game is playing out.

Vestal becomes at least the third trainer who had enjoyed a degree of national prominence and who in recent months has quit training out of financial necessity, joining Phil Hauswald and Randy Schulhofer.

"I did indeed love what I was doing," said Hauswald, "but it's awfully frustrating to show up early in the morning, seven days a week, and feel like you're just beating your head against the wall. I mean, how stupid do you have to be to keep doing that? You go along and fight the finances as long as you can, but at some point you realize you don't want to get in a position you can't get out of."

Hauswald agreed that the emergence of huge stables, such as those run by Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, and Scott Lake, has proven formidable for opposing trainers. "It used to be people weren't training 250 horses in five different locations," said Hauswald.

Vestal spent nearly 10 years learning horsemanship skills under some of the best trainers in racing history, including four Hall of Fame members: Charlie Whittingham, T.J. Kelly, Mack Miller, and P.G. Johnson. "Those were some pretty good teachers," he said.

After that lengthy apprenticeship, Vestal went out on his own by initially risking his own money to claim horses to kick-start what would become a successful public stable. He ended 2006 with 710 career victories, including 79 stakes, for stable earnings of more than $20 million.

His list of former clients included Charles Cella, Peter Willmott, Tom Carey, John Ed Anthony, Robert Clay, Helen Alexander, Penny Tweedy, Sam Hinkle, Dogwood Stable, and the Lucky Seven Stable, among others. That roster had dwindled last fall to only Cella, who owned the four horses that Vestal gave over to Johnson.

"My owners either lost interest, got out of the game, or they hired other trainers," said Vestal. Sarcastically, he added: "Some even had the audacity to die."

Vestal hit his career peak from 1991-93, when his horses won 204 races and more than $6.5 million and he was the leading trainer at meets at Churchill Downs, Keeneland, and Turfway Park. The best horses he trained were Williamstown, who set a Belmont Park record for a mile (1:32.60, a record that has since been eclipsed) when he won the 1993 Withers, and Ide, a winner of seven straight races and a major Kentucky Derby prospect before he was retired with an injury leading up to the 1996 Arkansas Derby. One of Vestal's most memorable moments came when he sent out Mi Cielo and Williamstown in the King's Bishop Stakes on the 1993 Travers Stakes undercard at Saratoga, where they finished one-two.

"Williamstown was the most talented horse I ever trained," he said, "and I'd dare to compare him to Secretariat in at least this respect: When I would take him to the racetrack in the morning, horsemen would stop what they were doing to look at him."

Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, Vestal epitomizes the strong-but-silent type. A former football player at Ohio University and a boxer who had 38 club fights in his early to mid-20's, Vestal dislikes boasting about any of his sporting exploits and often has gone to great lengths to avoid conversation. Once, when approached in a pub by someone who had heard he worked at the racetrack, Vestal told the man his name was Rocky, "a hot walker for Pete Vestal."

Vestal said he believes his reserved nature probably worked against him in the long run. "The successful trainer today is self-promoting," he said. "That in itself isn't necessarily bad, but you don't have the hands-on trainers you used to have. They're relying on assistants to tell them if a horse has a sore shin or a horse didn't eat up last night. So many horses are being put into so few hands, and it's squeezing the little guy out of the game. The bottom line, to me, is the horse is taking a back seat to the business itself."

Vestal said he is open to other racetrack jobs, including clocking or working as an official, and that although he is financially stable, "I've got a son going into college next year and a 90-year-old dad in North Carolina with round-the-clock home care," he said. "I can't just sit home and watch Jeopardy."

Vestal said his years as a boxer, along with the rigorous nature of being a trainer, are helping to ease his transition away from the backstretch. "I can take a beating as well as anyone," he said, tongue only partly in cheek.