Friday, March 16, 2012

Joe Waunsch, Director of Stabling

Joe Waunsch knows what it’s like to ship a horse hundreds of miles for a major race. He trained horses in the Breeders’ Cup three consecutive years, with his filly Platinum Tiara finishing second in the 2000 Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs. So when the 75-year-old Safety Harbor, Fla. resident announced his retirement from training two years ago, Tampa Bay Downs racing secretary Allison De Luca saw him as a natural fit to direct the track’s receiving barn operation. As Director of Stabling, Waunsch coordinates the influx of ship-ins and ‘work-and-go’ horses that arrive each morning at the stable gate on the north end of the racetrack. A still-wiry 5-feet-4 and 145 pounds, Waunsch oversees a three-person crew that includes his wife, Sue. The Brooklyn, N.Y. native won the Tampa Bay Downs training title in the 1989-90 season with 33 victories. Known throughout his career for his realistic, straightforward appraisal of horses, Waunsch trained such stakes winners as Scratch Pad, Devil’s Disciple, Platinum Tiara, Silver Bandana and A Penny Saved. His son Joe is a wholesale jeweler in the Tampa Bay area.

I had a birthday last month, but I can’t say I feel any older. The main reason I’ve been able to stay in good shape, I think, is because I galloped horses until I was 65. And the reason I stopped had nothing to do with not being able to do it physically – I was just at a point where I had to spend more time at the barn, as opposed to being on the horses. After I quit galloping, I started to have aches and pains I never had.
Riding horses is the greatest exercise man ever invented. You use every muscle in your body when you gallop a race horse. You’re using your arms and legs, you use your back a lot – everything comes into play. That’s why jockeys are so fit.
I remember hearing one time about a test they ran on a jockey, simulating him riding a six-furlong race, and they said he burned as much energy as a guy digging a ditch for four hours. You had better be fit when you ride races, and you better be in pretty good health. The toughest exercise I get any more is writing stuff on these charts in my office.
Growing up I wanted to be a jockey, but I wasn’t small enough. Still, I wanted to work with horses. When I got to be 19 or 20, I went to Holly Hill, S.C. to work for Lucien Laurin, later the trainer of Secretariat, and learned how to gallop. He already was known as a very good 2-year-old trainer, and he had a big operation. It was a great learning environment and a great place for me to get started.
Around 1967 I was freelancing, and I had just had my son. New York didn’t have year-round racing then, and I didn’t want to travel all over the region with a kid. Ocala was just getting built up, and I had a friend who was running Harbor View Farm, Louis Wolfson’s place.
I remember we had packed up the car and told my family we were out of there for good, and they were like ‘Yeah, you’re a city boy. Can you imagine living in a place like Ocala.’ Well, it was 14 years before I went north of Jacksonville. The opportunity at Harbor View was excellent, I absolutely loved Ocala and I spent the next 17 years breaking yearlings.
I actually worked three jobs during breaking season: early in the morning at Harbor View, somewhere else in mid-morning and another farm in the afternoon. If I didn’t get on 25 a day, I felt like I was cheating.
I had the great fortune then to be around a lot of good horses. Two of the best were Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner in 1978, and Slew o’ Gold, who won Eclipse Awards in 1983 and ’84 and ran second in the Tampa Bay Derby. I was on Slew o’ Gold the first time he ever breezed, at Wooden Horse Farm, which is Roy Lerman’s place now, Lambholm South. Slew o’ Gold might have been the best horse I’ve ever seen.
At the time I broke Affirmed, I don’t think anyone could have told you he would be a great horse. Harbor View had just sold a major portion of the place, and all they had was a small, 3/8-mile galloping track. He never showed anything spectacular there, but he became a great champion.
I took out my trainer’s license in 1983 and was fortunate to have a lot of success right away with a Florida-bred named Profusion, who won 12 races. He raced mostly at Tampa Bay Downs and Rockingham in New Hampshire.
Times – and money – being what they were, he only earned about $47,000, but he was the Tampa Bay Downs Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association Horse of the Year during the 1985-86 meeting. It’s funny that Mrs. (Stella) Thayer, who owns Tampa Bay Downs, bred a filly named Profusion who won at Gulfstream 10 years ago; my Profusion was a gelding.
As time went on, I kept getting better and better horses. I got a lot of horses from Bonnie Heath, who owned the 1956 Kentucky Derby winner, Needles. The better I did, the better caliber of horses I got. After I won the training title at Tampa Bay Downs, I went to Calder for the summer and wound up staying there 15 years. I was never leading trainer, but I usually had only 10-to-12 head and was able to win my share of races.
The first time I went to the Breeders’ Cup, at Churchill Downs in 1998, was with Dancing Gulch in the Distaff. She really wasn’t that kind of horse and finished seventh.
In 1999, jockey Willie Martinez and I teamed up to win the Grade II Walmac International Alcibiades with Scratch Pad for owner Jaime Carrion, so we had high hopes for the Juvenile Fillies at Gulfstream three weeks later, but she never really got into the race and finished ninth.
My best shot in the Breeders’ Cup came in 2000 at Churchill in the Juvenile Fillies with Platinum Tiara, who was owned by M375 Thoroughbreds, a partnership headed by the former major league pitcher, Rob Murphy.
About five of the jockeys were wired for sound during the race, and my jock, Shane Sellers, was rallying down on the inside when a horse drifted out in front of him. You could hear Shane saying “Watch it! Watch it! Ahhh, damn!” and he had to check her and the winner (47-1 shot Caressing) got around her. Platinum Tiara just ran out of ground and lost by a half-length.
It was disappointing, especially since I thought she was the best horse that day, but just to finish second in a Breeders’ Cup race was a big step. The next year, I ran her in the $150,000 Calder Breeders’ Cup Handicap, and she finished second behind another horse I trained, Silver Bandana, for Edward Somers. Running 1-2 in that race was a big thrill – the only thing better would have been a dead-heat.
Platinum Tiara wound up earning more than $600,000, and as a 4-year-old she won the Hillsborough Stakes on the turf here at Tampa Bay Downs.
As wonderful a horse as she was, I think the best horse I ever trained was a 2002 son of Devil His Due named Devil’s Disciple. A 2-year-old named B.B. Best beat Devil’s Disciple by three-and-a-half in the Wynn Dot Comma Stakes at Calder, and everyone said B.B. Best, who had never been headed, was already a living legend.
Four weeks later, we went against him again in the Criterium Stakes. I told my jockey, Rosemary Homeister, Jr., I thought we could run backwards and beat everything else in the race, and if she could get the lead without pushing him, to go for it. That’s what she did, and we ended up winning by nine lengths and ran the fastest Beyer Speed Figure in the country.
After we won another stakes at Calder, we decided to take Devil’s Disciple to Saratoga for the Grade I Hopeful, which was a $250,000 race. I felt great about his chances, but everything went wrong. We drew the No. 1 post, which is not where you want to be going seven furlongs, the track was sloppy and the jock (Cornelio Velasquez) had to rush him so he wouldn’t get smothered in the mud.
Well, at the sixteenth pole Devil’s Disciple opened up and looked like he was home free, but another horse came flying and beat us by a neck. You’ve probably heard of that other horse – Afleet Alex, who won the Arkansas Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont the following year.
Devil’s Disciple was injured in the Hopeful, and although he came back the following year and won an allowance at Calder, he never was the same. In horse racing you learn that you have to take the bad with the good, but I always wonder what might have happened if he hadn’t been hurt.
Most of the good horses I had, the stakes winners, were fillies. Maybe it’s because I was a little easier on them. A lot of people tend to train them the same way they do colts, but a lot of times they just need less hard training than you would put into some stocky colt.
People need to remember, every horse isn’t the same. Just like a person only has so much ability and can do so much work, it’s the same way with horses. You can’t train every one alike.
My main duties as the ‘Stall Man’ – everybody calls me that, even though my title is Director of Stabling – is to supervise the receiving barn and assign stalls for horses that ship in to run on a daily basis. Mostly, we get horses that ship in from Ocala or nearby locations, or people already on the grounds who don’t have enough stalls. We also have about 15 stalls for what we call ‘Work and Go’ horses – those that ship in to get a work over the track or get OK’d from the starting gate, usually from stables that don’t have training facilities.
I have an efficient, experienced crew, and we try to please everybody. Big days can be more stressful, especially when we’re getting several horses from trainers such as Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher and Christophe Clement, like during Tampa Bay Derby week. They expect first-class treatment, and that is what we strive to give them. So far I keep hearing we’re doing a good job.
The hours are much longer than when I was training, when I could set my own schedule. Here, they set it for you. When I was training at Calder, I’d be on the golf course by 9:30 every morning if I wasn’t running a horse in an early race – me and Eddie Plesa and Bill Kaplan and Tom Proctor, when he was training there.
This is a little more time-consuming. Sometimes I spend up to 12 hours here; there will be horses shipping in on Friday night, and I pretty much have to be here to make sure everything is done right.
Right now, I am pretty much going year to year. I’m happy here as long as my health holds up. The most enjoyable aspect of this job, to me, is being around people that I know and trainers that I’ve worked with. I still like watching the races, but obviously my interest is not quite as high as when I was training.
I have a 16-foot boat with a 50-horsepower engine that I take out for shallow-water fishing. We live right across the street from the dock. If this job lasted two more months, that would be OK, but I’m at a stage now where I want to have at least four months off.
I guess I’m kind of like those fillies I won so many races with. As long as you don’t overwork me and give me a rest when I need it, I’m going to give you my best effort.   

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