The Gelding

How horses get made.
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Photo by Suhrith Parthasarathy

Standing on a cement platform outside barn 40 on the backstretch of Belmont Park, Frazil made for an imposing sight. His groom, Jose Meza, was bathing him, carefully spraying warm water on his body as Frazil stood there, calm and composed. It was easy to see why he had won 7 of the 12 races he had entered in 2011. He was a big, handsome gelding—a rangy animal whose grace and elegance presented itself with remarkable, unmistakable lucidity. Relaxing after a tough morning workout, with his big ears pinning out, he made for a grandiose sight, with his bay coat glistening in the midday sunlight. He looked every bit an athlete—he was all muscle and he was perceptibly bigger than the other racehorses in the barn. There was a rare imperiousness about him.

It was half past nine on Monday of the Thanksgiving week and Frazil had just finished galloping a mile and a half, something that he had done almost every day of the last year, on the tracks at the 430-acre complex at Belmont Park. The park is like a world unto itself. Birds of different colors and varieties, ranging from the Red-bellied Woodpecker to the Yellow-rumped Warbler swoop over even as grooms and jockeys go about their daily routines.

Frazil played around with saliva in his mouth and worked it into a big, white foam, which from a distance could have been mistaken for a boxer’s mouth guard. That he was scheduled to race in a stakes race in a few days’ time wasn’t evident from his demeanor. He seemed assured and calm.

That hadn’t always been the case. Foaled in April 2006 to The Cliff’s Edge and Dance Academy, in Kentucky, Frazil began training under Linda Rice—his present owner—when he was a 2-year-old colt. John Newsome had bought him as a yearling, and although Frazil’s pedigree was proven, it was doubtful whether this would translate into results on the track. The Cliff’s Edge had been a Grade 1 winner, and his sire, Gulch, had famously won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs in 1988 and had retired with 13 wins from 32 starts and career earnings of more than $3 million, according to statistics released by Equibase. And, to top it off, Frazil even shared a striking resemblance to Gulch, with his black mane falling over the white star that occupies the area between his eyes—resembling a fringe, much like Gulch’s. Gulch’s progenies have included—apart from The Cliff’s Edge, who himself has more than $1 million in earnings—Thunder Gulch, the winner of the 1995 Kentucky Derby.

Rice, 47, a third-generation thoroughbred trainer, was driving her BMW from the track to her barn after watching Frazil train. Wearing her blond hair to shoulder length and dressed in jeans and a windcheater, she spoke in short, staccato sentences. “He was big and gawky when Newsome asked me to train him. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about him racing successfully as a 2-year-old,” she said.

Josephine Palmisano, a shorthaired woman who has worked as Rice’s assistant for 12 years, was standing outside Frazil’s stall. When asked about Frazil during his younger days, she said, “As a 2-year-old, he hadn’t quite developed into his stride, but he’s turned into a pretty nice horse now. Because he was such a big horse when he was young, he was a bit awkward. His movement was a little edgy and it took him a while to develop into himself and for him to mature.”

When Frazil turned three, though, he began getting tetchier, and Rice decided to have him castrated. “After that, he started training much better. He was growing into his size and he has just kept improving since,” said Rice, retaining her stern and businesslike manner.

According to Rice, Frazil, with his unusual size, hardly showed much promise when she initially trained him. “Normally, good horses would start to show something when they are around two, but this horse was so large and gawky. He’s about 17 hands tall. I think the bigger horses tend to develop later. As he grew into his size, he got more mature, he got more coordinated, and he got better all the time,” she said. One hand is equal to four inches and thoroughbreds average just short of 16 hands, making Frazil a particularly big horse.

Frazil showed tremendous improvement in training after his castration, and soon all his fleshy fat transformed into rippling muscles and Rice found suitable races for him to run in. In his first race, a maiden-claiming for 3-year-old thoroughbreds at Gulfstream Park in March 2009, Frazil finished ninth in a field of 10. A maiden-claiming race is one where none of the horses in the field has won a race before and where each horse has a price at which it can be “bought” or “claimed” out of the race. A person who wants to claim a horse must place a request prior to the race, and regardless of the result, the claimer becomes the new owner at the end of the race.

Two months later, at Tampa Bay, Frazil was entered in another maiden-claiming, where he finished first in a strong field, nicking into the lead in the final quarter of the mile-and-forty-yards race, and showcased his ability as a come-from-behind sprinter. Rice, though, thought it necessary to transfer Frazil to a cheaper racetrack, at Finger Lakes in Farmington, New York, where he could develop his talents fully. “Every race he got better and better, and with distance, too. He won going a mile and 40 yards, a mile and 70 yards and a mile and sixteenth. And as a 3-year-old, he really started learning to race at Finger Lakes,” said Rice, as she parked her car outside her barn.

Frazil, who had just had his warm bath, was taken for a half-hour walk around the barn even as his groom, Meza, began to prepare his lunch. Standing outside Frazil’s stall, Meza, a podgy Honduran who has worked with Rice for 11 years, said, “For lunch, he gets three scoops of Summer Heat, since he’s a big horse.” Summer Heat is a grainy horse feed that is high on fat and based on beet pulp. “His day begins at four in the morning,” explained Meza, “when he gets a scoop of Summer Heat, and after he finishes training, he eats lunch, relaxes for a while in the stall, then has an afternoon walk. He has dinner at four in the evening, which is four more scoops of the grains.”

As the gelding was being walked around, Meza pointed out the wooden planks inside Frazil’s stall that were recently installed. Frazil had made holes in the stall’s walls by biting into it them and kicking and buckling. “He’s a very happy horse; he loves to makes holes in the walls. He likes playing with the wood. But he’s a nice horse, very strong, but a playful guy,” said Meza with a glint in his eye.

When Frazil turned four, and as he was beginning to come into his own as a racehorse, he injured the suspensory ligament on his right front leg—a common injury for thoroughbreds—and it was around this time that John Newsome asked Rice if she would buy him. “The owner was going through a divorce and he asked me if I’d take Frazil under my reign. He wasn’t raceable at the time; he was on a vacation. When my client explained the situation and asked me if I’d be interested in taking the colt and taking care of the bills on the farm, I agreed to do that,” Rice explained.

Frazil sat out for six months in the barn in New York, convalescing, and then trained hard for three months, before Rice decided to run him again. The decision to go easy on him when he was younger, however, is now beginning to pay dividends.

“In my opinion, if you don’t apply too much pressure when they are younger, you’ll have a better, sounder horse at five and six. Unfortunately, though, because of the financial burden, too much pressure is put on horses as 2- and 3-year-olds. And with Frazil, with his tremendous size, it was a real blessing we didn’t do too much with him at that age. And that’s why he’s now flourishing,” Rice said.

In early November, at Aqueduct in Queens, in a race for thoroughbreds 3 years old and up, Frazil came from behind to clinch a stunning victory, as had become the norm with him in 2011. After a slow start, he took the lead toward the end of the first quarter, only to briefly relinquish the reins to Temecula Creek as they were turning into the homestretch, but he regained his composure with regal elegance, pulling away from the other horses, and showcasing a rare winner’s nerve. According to Mauricio Gonzalez, who gallops him in training, Frazil loathes having other horses around him, even in practice. “When there’s a lot of traffic, he’s not very comfortable,” said Gonzalez. “He likes being on his own. That’s good for a racehorse. Because when he sees others around him, he wants to push harder and get in front.” Palmisano, said, of the approach: “Sometimes when other horses are around him, he gets racy, which means he wants to pick it up and go faster. And he ends up overtraining himself. But that kind of attitude is very good. You want a horse to be competitive. If a horse comes next to him, you want him to get in front.”

Meza, though, insisted Frazil knows when he’s in a race and when he’s only training: “You can see his attitude change when it’s time to race, and when he’s in the paddock. You can see that he’s geared up. He walks faster, with a sense of purpose. In the morning, when he’s training, he knows what he’s doing. He loves the track. He starts jumping around and playing around and he wants to run. In the last race you saw, when he got to the stretch, the other horse looked like he was going to go by, but Frazil just flew past him.”

Mid-October, in another race for thoroughbreds 3 years old and up, on a fast, Belmont Park track, Frazil had again come from behind after a sluggish start to claim the $24,000 first prize. As he turned after the first quarter, he displayed a sudden burst of pace and left everyone in his wake. His movement had a liquid grace to it, almost in stark contrast to his name. The word frazil refers to a form of slushy ice formed when mist, usually from waterfalls, freezes. Commonly seen flowing from the edge of the cliffs at Yosemite Valley in the winter, it’s probable that the original owner had Frazil’s sire, Cliff’s Edge, in mind when naming him. At any rate, Rice seems to think so.

Frazil, though, may be reaching his prime, a stage where the standards of his performance are likely to stabilize. “I think he’s at his peak as far as level of competition goes. I don’t think he’ll improve a lot from this point. So I’ve been trying to find him races where he can succeed,” said Rice, who has trained horses to victories in more than 1,000 races and in 2009 became the first woman to win a trainer’s title at a major event when she led 20 horses to victory at Saratoga. That Frazil remains at the forefront of her thoughts, considering the pedigree that she has in her stables, is testament to his development as a thoroughbred. “Right now, he is one of my better performing horses, and he is a very important horse to me,” Rice added.

Gonzalez, who gallops Frazil every morning in training, believes Frazil can continue to show improvement. “I think he can improve further, but it depends on a lot of things. He is already a very good racehorse, but he can get better.” Frazil will turn six next year, the age at which most thoroughbreds are at their prime, making 2012 crucial to his legacy. But with a trainer as experienced as Rice, Frazil can be sure that he will be given a stage to perform. Under the appropriate conditions and under the right training, it is conceivable for a racehorse to improve with age. This isn’t a worry for those in Rice’s barn, though. There’s a sense of pleasure in being around a thoroughbred in his prime. The present in Rice’s barn has a beauty to it. There is a spring in everyone’s step, from Rice to the jockeys to the grooms. Abigail Adsit, one of Rice’s two assistants at Belmont, said, “Frazil has character beyond belief as he has shown in the races. But most importantly, he is just a really cool horse to be around. He loves life and is a gentle giant.”

Frazil had now finished his morning walk and was returned to the stalls, where he was given a heap of hay—something that he is fed throughout the day apart from the scoops of grains that he gets for his regular meals. He polished off the hay in less than ten minutes and jutted his nose out of the stall, almost as if to ask for more. Palmisano was standing outside the stall watching him: “Anyone can go into the stall and play with him; he won’t hurt you. Some horses bite; some horses kick. He’ll kick when he’s in his stall and no one’s around, when he’s feeling a bit antsy or when he gets riled up a little. He’s a nosy little bugger, but that’s nice in a horse.” And just as she was speaking, Frazil put his nose out again, let out a nicker, a soft and gentle whine, wanting to be petted. Palmisano obliged.

But Frazil knows when to put on his game face. He was scheduled to run his first stakes race—where the owners pay an entry fee, which is added to the fee produced by the track in generating the prize money—on Thanksgiving Day, but Rice scratched him before the race. “The rain during the previous days had caused the track to be quite wet. I wasn’t going to take any chances with him,” she said. But on Saturday, December 17, although the air was cold, with little rain the track condition at Aqueduct was perfect for Frazil to showcase his talents. More than 6,000 people had gathered at the venue and in the eighth and most anticipated race of the afternoon, Frazil was entered in the fifty-third running of the $65,000 Gravesend Handicap—named in honor of the racetrack near Coney Island that was closed just over a hundred years ago—in a field of six.

With twenty minutes to go for the six-furlongs race, Frazil and the four other horses—Escrow Kid had been scratched in the morning—were brought to the brown-and-white-walled paddock. Rice, wearing a black overcoat and blue jeans, together with Adsit swatched as Meza took Frazil for a warm-up walk. While the other horses looked jittery and resisted attempts to be saddled, Frazil maintained a sense of calm; he behaved like the consummate professional. Minutes from the start, jockey Cornelio Velasquez, who is a winner of several races, including the Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap and the Belmont Lexington Stakes, dressed in white and light-blue silks and wearing a blue cap, got on top of Frazil and took him for two more rounds around the paddock before guiding him toward the starting gates on the far end of the park. Even before the start, however, Deerslayer, a horse that had been flown in from Yorkshire for the race, went loose and had to be scratched, reducing the field to four. By then, Rice, with the race programs and her BlackBerry in hand, had settled down on a bench by the side of the paddock, her eyes focused on the television. With Deerslayer’s late scratch causing a delay in the race, Rice joked with Adsit and a couple of other friends, seemingly looking relaxed. But at a quarter to four, with the horses in the gates, the tension had returned to her face; the pressure couldn’t have been more palpable.

Starting from post position four, Frazil was the last to get off the block, but he soon pushed hard outside Rule by Night—the odds-on favorite—and This Ones for Phil. For a brief while, in the opening half mile, it looked like Frazil may be ill-equipped to challenge for the honors, but as had been the case with most of his race victories, he showed a sudden burst of pace, edging into the lead at the top of the stretch. The excitement in the paddock was astonishing—Rice and Adsit were going berserk, screaming at the top of their voices: “Come-on Frazil! You can do it, boy!” Urged by Velasquez, Frazil displayed even greater verve, pulling away from the pack and finally resisting a late charge from Pretty Boy Freud to win by three-quarters of a length. There were hugs aplenty in the paddock and Rice was soon up in the winner’s circle, beaming like a Cheshire cat. She said: “He’s something—he pins his ears back, his head’s down, you can see the expression in his eyes—he’s a barn favorite.”

Note: The horse The Cliff's Edge was initially referred to in this article as "Cliff's Edge". 

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