Article By: Hal Lundgren
It was freezing at West Virginia's Mountaineer Park, and Wilfrido Montano didn't like that one bit.
"Enough of this," he might have told himself between shivers. "I want warmer weather."
You can understand his response. He grew up in much warmer Tijuana, Mexico. There, he learned racing under his father at Agua Caliente Racetrack.
The younger Montano eventually went out on his own, training horses in the Northwest at Seattle's Emerald Downs, Portland Meadows and in Idaho. His career led him to Mountaineer Park. A good track, he thought. But the average January low is 21 degrees. In Houston, it's 47.
So Montano moved 16 of his horses here for Sam Houston Race Park's Thoroughbred season.
"It's much nicer here," said Montano, raising palms to the sun on a 75-degree afternoon.
Unlike baseball, Thoroughbred racing has no designated major and minor leagues. Horse owners and trainers pick their spots, seeking competition that's right for their horses.
At the lightly populated top, owners might fork over $1 million or $800,000 for a more-than-promising yearling. Those babies are long shots. Few win enough races to match their price tag. The biggest profits typically come in breeding. Tapit earned lunch money as a runner but carries a $185,000-per breeding stud fee.
Everyday owners and trainers like Montano dominate racing. They never get close to a million-dollar yearling, let alone think about buying one. A big hit for everyday folks like Montano might be the 60 percent winner's share of a $25,000 purse. And high operating costs always squeeze profits.
Shipping 16 horses to SHRP from Mountaineer Park in two vans cost $900 per horse, a total of $14,400.
"That's a lot of money, Montano said.
A quick return offset some of that cost. After Montano's first SHRP race, his horse was claimed for $5,000.
Montano has also been a successful buyer in the claiming game.
"We claimed Ready Set Get, and he won three in a row," Montano recalled. "We claimed Italian Warrior, and he also won three straight. They gave us good results. You can also get good results if you improve a horse enough so that somebody will claim him for more than what you paid."
Racing's best claim might have been Palace Malice, who sold for a bargain $20,000. He ended his career with earnings of $2,7 million.
This week at SHRP, Montano entered horses in a $10,500 race on Friday and a $25,000 race on Saturday.
"I look forward to watching them run," he said.
Whether it's conditioning his horses or claiming runners that he might improve, Montano has two thoughts.
"I love this sport," he said. "I always have. And I love doing a job that makes me part of this sport."