They Shoot Up Horses, Don't They?
Even before the start of the Gulfstream Park season in January, horse trainer Mark Shuman and his boss, New Hampshire mortgage banker Michael Gill, were talking large about their prospects. They had sauntered into Hallandale Beach like a couple of pistoleros, muscling their way into the pastoral confines of the horse track's backstretch, stepping on toes, verbally jostling the gentlemen of the barns. They had a stable full of speedy horses itching for action, they said, and they were comin' at the competition. Watch out.
They had it all worked out. The burly, smooth-faced Shuman, 32, with only two years behind him as an accredited trainer with his own roster of clients, would win more races than anyone else at Gulfstream. Shuman and Gill's horses would suck up the purses like anteaters consuming a line of ants. They would be -- no question about it -- in contention for the Eclipse Award, the Oscar of horseracing, as the year's best trainer and best owner. They'd make the others look like, in Gill's description, "knuckleheads."
"Whenever you enter a race," Shuman told other trainers ominously, "think of me."
Brash words from a relative newcomer, track cynics said. Let's see what he has to say in April, at the end of the meet.
But Shuman, the cynics quickly learned, had an uncanny talent for entering his charges in races where they'd have an edge, thus picking up cheap wins. And with horses like Boston Brat, a huge, hard-driving stallion who quickly set a couple of track records, Shuman seemed to have the equine firepower to match his boasts.
The upstart trainer, who hadn't even been listed at the start of the meet in Gulfstream's media guide, began winning big-time. It was phenomenal. By mid-February, less than halfway through the season, he had matched the track record, set in 1996 by Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, of 39 wins.
It should have been a golden time for the young trainer: all those horses hitting their stride in the stretch, all those triumphant treks to the winner's circle, the high-fives from happy bettors, the acclaim of the crowds milling in front of Gulfstream's vast, airy grandstand.
But the sense of optimism around the Shuman barn soon degenerated into a poisonous cloud of suspicion. The "negativity," as Shuman pointedly refers to the mood during his final months at Gulfstream, started with rumors around the barns that the trainer was administering some kind of illegal substance to his horses. "I mean, he's just not that good," trainer Peter Walder said in April. How could this upstart travel in the same company as Mott without using illicit performance enhancers?
Shuman often won with horses that had arrived at his barn as dull, middle-of-the-pack nags. Maybe, went the theory, he was using some new substance the chemists hadn't yet developed a test for. Maybe there was some secret "rocket fuel" propelling Shuman's horses across the finish line.
Then came the incident of The Leg, an occurrence so bizarre that, like some weird seismic event, it seemed to challenge the essential integrity of the game and rattle the entire racing industry even as top trainers were gearing up for the Triple Crown season.
On February 3, Casual Conflict, a gutsy, 9-year-old, Shuman-trained gelding, broke down midrace when the cannon bone in one of the thoroughbred's slender front calves splintered like a stick. Casual Conflict writhed agonizingly in the dirt, his leg almost torn away from his body. A track veterinarian arrived in an ambulance, set up a makeshift screen around the horse, and gave him a lethal injection of phenobarbitol. Casual Conflict had apparently suffered one of those catastrophic injuries that occasionally occur when high-strung racehorses reach beyond their physical capabilities.
Shortly after Casual Conflict was euthanized, though, the track vet returned to examine the horse's body and found that the injured leg had been mysteriously amputated. Somebody had carried it off. It was ludicrous. What was going on? Maybe the strange disappearance was an attempt to destroy damning evidence, track officials reasoned. They quickly tracked down Philip Aleong, a veterinarian employed by Shuman. He showed them the missing limb, which was wrapped in cloth in the back of his truck.
It was the smoking gun that all of Shuman's critics had been waiting for. The subsequent investigation, which included shipping off the leg for examination and conducting a battery of tests at the Racing Laboratory at the University of Florida in Gainesville, raised the specter of widespread doping in the Shuman barn. For a month and a half, as Shuman's horses kept sweeping up the purses, there was a harsh, persistent buzz about Shuman, Gill, and the doper's needle.
Horseracing is at an odd juncture of two widely divergent cultures. There's the aristocracy of the tracks, the pastel-clad rich folks with names like Phipps and Chandler who stand in the paddock before the big races going misty-eyed at the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" or "East Side, West Side," basking in the power of huge restless animals that brim with kinetic energy. And there are the rumpled masses, the railbirds, clutching dog-eared copies of the Daily Racing Form, peering with haunted eyes down the track at an approaching commotion of galloping hooves.
Shuman and Gill had somehow managed to alienate both groups. To the well-heeled crowd, the callow Shuman didn't appear to be in the same class with smooth, self-possessed trainers like Mott, multiple Derby winner Bob Baffert, or stakes leader Bobby Frankel. Those men all seemed to trail wisps of glamour and gravitas as they moved in and out of the paddock. Shuman, beefy, awkward, with an omnipresent baseball cap, was more like the guy who gives you an estimate on a new garage door. There was something charmlessly blue-collar about Shuman as he marched implacably from victory to victory. His assault on the Gulfstream record brought back memories of the unsung Roger Maris pursuing Babe Ruth's home-run mark in 1961.
"It's not like people want to cheer for the guy," Walder said. "He's trying to scare other trainers out of races. He's very arrogant. It's not like rooting for Sammy Sosa to hit 500 home runs."
As for Gill, he was just too hungry for the paddock crowd. A self-made former seminarian who started one of the biggest mortgage-banking businesses in the country, Gill had a reputation as a free-spending, do-anything-for-a-win horseman. He had the money -- his company, New Hampshire-based Mortgage Specialists, is expected to gross $100 million this year -- and he was ready to spend it, sometimes almost buying out a field to ensure a victory. Earlier this month, when one of his horses won a stakes race in Maryland, he owned three of the seven entries.
In a brief stint as a trainer in New Hampshire in 1995, Gill was suspended after one of his horses tested positive for an illegal bronchial dilator. (A bum rap, Gill says; the drug had been administered by the previous trainer, whom Gill had just fired.) In recent years, he has established himself as one of the top owners in the country. Last year, his horses won 228 races, garnering a total of $5.6 million and placing Gill fourth on the U.S. money list.
It didn't help that Gill and Shuman were aggressively taking dozens of horses from other trainers' barns. Under the unforgiving rules of the so-called "claiming game," any horse entered in a claiming race -- a majority of Gulfstream competition -- is, for a brief 15 minutes before the starting bell, up for grabs by any legitimate trainer who wants to pay the pre-established price. It's a kind of free-market system, ensuring that horses run against competitors at their own level. A trainer is free to match his prize speedster against the slow-footed crowd just to pick up a cheap win, but he does so at his own risk.
By shrewdly stepping in to claim some sleepers and unloading their own underperformers, Shuman and Gill swept up some of the track's best horseflesh. This violated the spirit of sunny collegiality that often settles on the small town-like backstretch of a racetrack, where trainers quietly agree not to claim one another's horses. With Shuman and Gill in the mix, nobody could relax. Other trainers, some of whom lost $100,000 horses to Shuman and Gill, were in an uproar. It's all part of the game, says Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents 5,000 owners and trainers. "It's not a game for people in short pants," he says.
Two months into the season, Shuman, backed by Gill's cash, had built up his stable from 50 thoroughbreds to more than 100. By the end of the winter meet, Shuman had claimed 110 horses. "I've never seen anyone claim so aggressively before," Stirling says.
Nor were the bettors in the trenches -- the regulars at the betting windows -- happy with Shuman and Gill. Some of Shuman's rivals tell stories about the smart crowd, burnt once or twice too often, refusing to bet on races that included Shuman's horses. "A lot of gamblers are upset," trainer Walder says, recounting how a "no-prayer" Shuman horse had pulled an upset, wiping out a big Pick 6 wager (that is, betting six winners in a row) by some of his associates. "One guy pushed a TV off a table," Walder recounts.
For the smalltime bettors, those guys clutching the $3 and $4 tickets, the tale of the leg was just more confirmation of the persistent suspicion that the whole sport is a rip-off designed to shear low-level gamblers like sheep. Keeping a lid on the endemic cynicism at the track has always been tough, Gulfstream President and General Manager Scott Savin says. "We want the offenders punished severely," he says. "We have to see that people who aren't playing by the same rules as everyone else don't play the game."
In person, Shuman doesn't seem like a diabolical threat to racing. He's polite and soft-spoken, though sometimes you can see the humiliation glinting through his pained smile. After all the bad publicity, racetracks up and down the East Coast have denied Shuman stall privileges. No room at the inn, say Aqueduct and Belmont in New York, Monmouth in New Jersey, Philadelphia Park in Pennsylvania, and Calder. At Delaware Park, they won't even let Shuman or Gill on the grounds.
"Where else do you get punished for being the best at something?" the trainer says, his eyes flashing angrily.
Shuman is a confident, hands-on trainer who clambers bear-like into the stalls to check hoofs and fetlocks, doing all the strapping and saddle-cinching while his grooms stand and watch. All of the awkwardness disappears when Shuman is around his charges. On his early-morning rounds around the barn, he pokes and probes, barking orders about one chunky nag ("Cut back his feed"), carefully scrutinizing another who is shrinking toward the back of his stall.
There's a kind of Zen of horseracing, he suggests: Understand your horses. "Some horses just have a desire to run," he says. "You can have the soundest horse in the world and he won't run. And you can have a horse with all of these little aches and pains and he'll run through them."
Horse training is a lot like human training: a little glory when your athlete comes through and a lot of nursing minor injuries during downtime. Shuman talks knowledgeably about the jolting effects on a horse of the sandy Gulfstream main track ("It's very hard and unforgiving") and about his decision to shoe one of his animals with oval-shaped "bar" shoes. "He's a big heavy horse, and he pounds his heels," Shuman says. "Squeeze him there and you'll make him flinch."
But Shuman also has a harsh side. He shows it while preparing Boston Brat for a stakes race in West Virginia. The 6-year-old set the Gulfstream track record in January for the five-furlong sprint by smoking the field in a sizzling 56.2 seconds. As Shuman, with a hand-held timer, watches from a platform overlooking the Gulfstream backstretch, Boston Brat canters out onto the track under exercise rider Eric Cohn. The rider leads the horse into a half-mile sprint, and Shuman checks his timepiece. He scowls. It's as if the powerful horse had been running through sludge.
Cohn trots back and looks down sheepishly. "That's as slow as he's going to go," Cohn says.
"Who said anything about slow?" Shuman demands, lashing into his rider. "We can only breeze him so many times, you know. Now I'm going to have to bring him back out here on Wednesday. We're shipping him to a stakes race a thousand miles from here in ten days. If he breaks down, I'm holding you personally responsible." The slow pace may have had more to do with the horse than the rider. On May 3, Boston Brat finished out of the money at Mountaineer Race Track in Chester.
Mark Shuman was born in Ohio, where he came to racing, as did a lot of other trainers, by following in the footsteps of his father. Joe Shuman is still a fixture at Thistledown in Cleveland, having trained there for 30 years while working as a teacher at a nearby high school. Like other stable brats, Mark was always around racehorses as a kid. Before he started college at Miami University, Ohio, he thought he was going to be a veterinarian. But then an 8 a.m. class in organic chemistry interceded, and he switched to exercise physiology.
"My father always said you should have something to fall back on," Shuman recalls. After college, he started apprenticing with a series of established trainers, including Thomas Skeffington, Howie Tesher, and James Bond, all of whom are well-known to racing fans. Skeffington told him, "Work with as many trainers as you can. Learn from all of them. Learn from the grooms." It's advice that he still follows. "I have grooms who teach me things about my horses," he says.
In 2000, Joe Shuman developed colon cancer, and Mark hurried home to attend to his father's 35-horse stable in operation at Thistledown. "He was going to give up the horses," the younger Shuman says of his dad. "But after I came back, he didn't miss a day at the track. He was in chemo, and he looked like hell, but he was there."
Then Shuman went out on his own, picking up a few clients here and there in Ohio and Delaware. In 2001, a track blacksmith told him about Michael Gill, a New Hampshire mortgage banker with an obsession for thoroughbreds. By then, Shuman had moved to South Florida and was preparing to make a stab at the big time at Gulfstream. "Mr. Gill called me up and offered me a job in Maryland, but I said I couldn't pass up the opportunity of racing in Florida," Shuman recalls. "I hung up, and then for two hours, I literally hit my head against a wall. I called him back and said, 'You know, I just turned down a job without even knowing what it was. '"
The job was overseeing a stable of 22 horses that were racing at Laurel Park in Laurel, Maryland. Shuman packed up again.He had middling success at Laurel, enough to think about finally graduating to South Florida. He also earned a black mark on his record. In April 2001, he was suspended for 15 days when two of his horses tested positive for a banned muscle relaxant (a minor infraction, Shuman says, based on an overdose of a medication the horses had used in training). Though plenty of other trainers have been hit with suspensions, even some of Shuman's critics, this was something his adversaries made much of when things started getting hot at Gulfstream. "The fact is, he's come up positive in the past," Walder says knowingly.
It was Shuman's first run-in with the drug bureaucracy.
The use of illicit pharmacological substances in horses has probably been around for as long as the animals have raced competitively. The profit motive is a constant. Historical accounts of American racing are full of references to illegal substances, from turpentine to corn liquor, fed to horses. The famed Man o' War, the premier American racehorse of the post-World War I Jazz Age, has been described as "the greatest hophead horse of all time." Like steroid-fueled Olympic athletes or bicyclists supercharged with illegal oxygen carriers, drug-using horses undermine the public's faith. The difference is that, in horseracing, more money is at stake.
Horseracing is a tight, easily rattled community. Recent reports of widespread use of an illicit, almost undetectable drug called erythropoietin, or EPO, set off alarm bells all over the country.
The main bulwark against horse doping in Florida is a low concrete building on 34th Street across from the main campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. Each year, some 60,000 urine and blood samples from horse and dog tracks are tested in the Racing Laboratory, once the veterinary school's primate center but now a spotless testing facility that hums with sophisticated machinery.
It's a place where technicians toss around fractions so small that they're beyond human comprehension. Leading a visitor from room to room, lab director Cynthia Kollias-Baker, a slim woman with the upright bearing of someone who has done a lot of riding, pauses before a weighty-looking apparatus the size of a couple of window air conditioners. This is the juggernaut of trace analysis. It's a liquid chromatrograph mass spectrometer, Kollias-Baker says, and it can detect traces of drugs as small as a nanogram per milliliter. A nanogram is one billionth of a gram.
Machines like the LCMS can find just about anything, Kollias-Baker says. The problem is knowing what to look for. "If someone can tell me what it is that trainers are using," she says, "I'll test all my samples for it."
Chemists have by now developed tests to detect hundreds of drugs, from opiates and cocaine derivatives to bronchial dilators and caffeine, from Tylenol to Vick's Cough Syrup, all of which, when present on race day, are enough to disqualify a horse and bring penalties to a trainer.
Last year, the lab received about 27,000 samples from the state's four operating racetracks -- Gulfstream, Calder, Tampa Bay Downs, and Pompano Park -- and came up with positives 82 times. The majority of the hits, though, were for a mild, commonly used painkiller called phenylbutazone, which trainers are permitted to use up to 24 hours before post time. Most of the positive tests probably came from minor dosage miscalculations, state officials concede. Serious drugs like morphine and cocaine? They showed up only twice.
Still, the state approaches the problem of horse doping with deadly seriousness, investing heavily in keeping the sport clean. The Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering maintains post-race "detention" barns at each track, where winner, second-place horse, and often a third one are led immediately after the race for blood and urine samples. At Gulfstream, the detention barn is a row of a dozen stalls a short walk from the finish line. Shortly after a horse is led there, a veterinarian draws a blood sample from its jugular. A "catcher" stands at the ready with foam cups on sticks to gather the urine. (There's a natural tendency for thoroughbreds to urinate after a race, though in some cases staff veterinarian Billy Cannon has to call in veteran catcher Silvio Alonso, 82, who closes the stall door and slowly circles the horse, whistling hypnotically, cup at the ready.)
Samples are frozen and sent overnight to the Gainesville lab, where they're subjected to a battery of procedures. Here's the Defense Department for synthetic chemistry. Centrifuges separate molecules by weight, like a miner panning for gold, and specially prepared sleuth antibodies (extracted from test animals) sniff out drugs at the molecular level. Then the spectrometers do their stuff, smashing traces of drugs and feeding the resultant particles through a magnetic field to analyze them by mass and electronic charge.
Even marquee trainers get caught up in the system. Former Derby champ Baffert, for instance, was fined $1,000 in Louisiana earlier this year when one of his horses tested positive for a small amount of an illegal bronchodilator. Recently there has been a growing protest from horsemen's groups. "They're testing for levels so small, they couldn't possibly have any pharmacological effect," says Stirling, the Horsemen's Benevolent Association director. "How low can you go?"
After one recent race at Calder, a horse named Quanchontaug tested positive for a cocaine derivative. The substance turned up at a rate of 10 nanograms per milliliter. After a hearing before an administrative law judge, the trainer was suspended for ten days and fined $100. If a tiny amount of cocaine had actually been fed to Quanchontaug to improve his performance, it hadn't worked very well. He placed third.
Maybe the enforcement system is ham-handed, but there's no question that slick operators are looking for a competitive edge with new drugs, state officials say. "It's human nature to try to beat the system," says Jim Decker, a former New York Police Department detective who's now the chief of investigation for the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.
In some cases, the cheaters get away with it. A few years ago, a consortium of racing associations and professional groups ran a "supertest" to see if, even with state-run labs in place, drugs were going undetected. Lab technicians double-checked samples from 20 racetracks across the country. Of almost 1,600 samples tested, 1.3 percent came back positive.
In recent years, investigators have found Viagra (used not so much for the usual effects as for lowering blood pressure), ephedrine, the Ecstasy-like benzylpiperazine, and a powerful pain-killing snail toxin (produced synthetically as ziconotide) said to be 1,000 times more powerful than morphine. Lately, though, enforcement officials worry most about EPO, a hard-to-detect synthetic hormone that can, as Kollias-Baker puts it, "give the system a little goose," though horses that have used the drug will develop telltale antibodies.
Kollias-Baker, who is a veterinary pharmacologist, doubts that EPO -- or any other drug -- is the "rocket fuel" that backstretch cynics say is giving some horses an edge. For one thing, the animals produce an EPO-like hormone without drugs. "A horse has a contractile spleen," she says. "It can anticipate the exercise, releasing red blood corpuscles into the system. Horses are natural blood-dopers."
As for the persistent myth of the brilliant synthetic chemists working doggedly to turn out new, undetectable substances: "If there's somebody out there who's so good at what he does that he can take an opiate and move a molecule around so that our tests wouldn't recognize it," Kollias-Baker says, "that's one good biochemist. He'd be making a lot more money working for Pfizer or Glaxo Wellcome."
It was into the rarefied atmosphere of sophisticated testing at the Racing Lab that, on February 4, Pari-Mutuel Wagering officials dropped Casual Conflict's two front legs (the healthy one was sent along for purposes of comparison). Even for a veteran researcher like Kollias-Baker, the limbs were a gruesome sight. "Horrifying," says Kollias-Baker, who owns two horses. "You really worry about that kind of an injury. It doesn't happen that often. For people who have horses, it's a devastating occurrence."
A pathologist examined the injured leg for observable tampering; then those analytical machines went to work. "We were looking for any type of agent that might have been applied to nerves to desensitize a lower limb." The lab also checked blood for all the usual chemical suspects to see if Casual Conflict had been drugged into a state of hyperaggressiveness.
The result: zilch, nada, zero. There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary in Casual Conflict's leg.
Too late, though. By the time the Racing Lab's report was issued March 23, Sports Illustrated had already run an account of the incident of The Leg. A piece by Daniel G. Habib, on page 24 of the March 3 issue, described how Aleong "ran out and sawed off part of the right foreleg before it could be inspected by track vets."
"They've got him jumping the rail with a hacksaw," Gill says scornfully of the national magazine. "The horse's body was in a holding area, ready for incineration. The leg was barely attached to the body. [Aleong] actually cut a piece of skin," thereby separating the limb. Decker, the investigator for Pari-Mutuel Wagering, confirmed Gill's account, adding that Aleong had said he wanted the limb for research purposes.
The bad publicity came just as trainers were applying to racetracks for stall space for the spring meets. Managers of Delaware Park, where Shuman's horses had raced in the past, informed Gill and Shuman in a letter at the end of March that "you are not welcome on the grounds" of the track. The letter gave no reason for their exclusion, but Chief Operating Officer William Fasy told a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, "I just don't need the PR hassles I've had in the past two months."
For Gill, the attempts to keep him out of competition were "un-American." There's an "old boys network" at work in many tracks, Gill contends. "The real reason [for the exclusionary measures] is that, when your horses start winning a lot of races and become a dominant force at a meet," he said by telephone from his New Hampshire office, "you're taking food away from somebody else's mouth. The other trainers start saying, 'This guy is killing us. '" He contends that influential trainers have demanded that he and Shuman be blackballed.
And he'll see them all in court. Gill has initiated lawsuits against Delaware Park, Gulfstream, and some leading trainers. In the Gulfstream case, filed last month in U.S. District Court, Gill contends that management had a copy of the report exonerating him weeks before it was publicized. "The report was sitting there on [General Manager] Scott Savin's desk while he was being interviewed by Sports Illustrated," Gill contends. "He could have cleared it all up." Savin would not comment.
Lawsuits and public recriminations -- it was a hell of a way to end a phenomenally successful season.
Gill and Shuman's strategy (as Gill puts it: "I put my horse where I think he's going to win, and I intimidate you about where you put your horse") had worked like a dream. Of course, critics are quick to point out that the strategy was good for scoring a lot of wins (Shuman entered 350 horses into Gulfstream races and won 26 percent of them) but also for losing a lot of money. Just to pay his vet bills, Gill spent about $250,000 a month. At the same time, he was investing heavily in the new crop of 2-year-olds, shelling out $8 million in February at a horse auction in Ocala. "I'm not the first guy who came into the business with deep pockets and left with shallow ones," Gill says. "Horseracing will find your pain threshold. I came in knowing I was going to lose money. But I do it for the love of the game."
But Shuman got his record-smashing season, finishing with 87 wins, 50 more than his closest competitor -- though it turned out to be a bittersweet accomplishment. "All the negativity -- it took 100 percent of the enjoyment out of it," Shuman says.
Shuman and Gill have won some grudging support from fellow racing professionals. "It's not easy to root for Michael Gill," racing writer Steven Crist wrote last month in the Daily Racing Form. "[But] he is a citizen of a country where people supposedly cannot be denied their livelihood if they play by the rules. In the absence of any evidence that he is currently engaged in wrongdoing, it is a lot easier to root for Gill than for the racetracks that are trying to drive him out of the business."
Managers at Maryland's Pimlico and Laurel Park say Gill is welcome there. "He's done nothing wrong here," said Georganne Hale, Maryland Jockey Club racing secretary. "The man runs a lot of horses every day. He definitely helps us fill races."
Still, Gill is threatening to quit racing. He and Shuman have opened a barn and training facility in eastern Pennsylvania, a short haul from tracks in New Jersey and Maryland. But Gill says his heart's not in it anymore. "If this is the best it gets," he says, "how good is it going to be down the road?"
It's the last week of the Gulfstream season, and Shuman has a rare slow day. The only Shuman horse racing is a $25,000 claimer named Sweet Promises, a handsome, almost black 3-year-old with a history of early speed. Shuman has run him four times. But so far, the results have been nothing but sweet promises, with the horse always fading in the stretch. If ever a nag needed some rocket fuel, it would seem to be this one.
Still, Shuman, the baseball cap pulled low on his forehead, primps and probes his charge in the paddock stall. As his grooms stand by, he pulls away some shin pads and carefully cinches the saddle, then douses the horse's mouth with a wet sponge. The last time Sweet Promises ran, he led into the stretch in a 5.5-furlong race, so Shuman has fit him into a five-furlong contest.
Shuman runs his hand down one foreleg; it comes away oily. "What's this?" he says, frowning. "¿Que es esto? ¿Por qué oil?" Neither of the two grooms responds. Shuman takes a rag and wipes down the leg. "Baby oil," he says. "They use it to make the coat shine. There's just too much of it."
The jockey will be Elvis Trujillo, a cocky-looking veteran from Panama. He and Shuman walk together to the paddock's grassy area. There's obviously a communication problem.
"He's going to be out in front," Shuman says.
Trujillo looks at him blankly.
"Muy, muy rápido. Let him go," Shuman says.
Trujillo seems to understand. Shuman boosts Trujillo onto Sweet Promises' back and heads for his personal box in the clubhouse. After three and a half months of racing, Shuman is a recognizable figure in the Gulfstream crowd. People point him out as he passes. He's talking philosophy. "A lot of trainers train way too hard," he says. "They think they should run their horses real fast every morning. There's no money in the morning. We usually cut back on the training."
So what's the secret to those big performance improvements? Shuman laughs. "Those are the ones that stick out," he says. "But we've claimed some horses that couldn't walk home. We've claimed some that never raced again."
Around the clubhouse boxes, where owners and trainers have reserved seats, people approach Shuman, grinning and glad-handing. "Yeah," says one man, squeezing Shuman's hand, "they were trying to say you cheated. I said, 'If he's a cheater, then I'm the Queen of England. '"
Shuman grins back at him. Later, he'll scoff. "There are so many two-faced people around the track," he says, "coming up and acting friendly, then talking about me behind my back."
The race starts, and Shuman squirms in his seat. "The day I stop being nervous about a race, I'll quit," he says. Sweet Promises is indeed muy rapido, stretching out to four lengths in front of the pack. But as he comes around the turn heading toward the finish line, the horse seems suddenly to be laboring in mud. The pack catches up, and Sweet Promises finishes third.
There will be no roof-raising miracles emanating from the Shuman barn, no rocket-fueled victories, just the hollow reward of a barely-in-the-money finish. A few minutes after the race, Shuman's cell phone rings. Another trainer has claimed Sweet Promises.
It was the best thing that had happened all day. Shuman shrugs. "Good riddance," he says.
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