"Could you get my wife in the story?" Leon Blusiewicz is a horse trainer whose wife, Irene, died of cancer two months ago. "My whole life changed when I married her. Me, I had two years high school and she was this superintelligent girl with all the class in the world. You could take her anywhere with any crowd and she would prevail. Thirteen years we were married. I never fooled around on her. I still love her. My grooms, now, they say, 'Miss Irene is pushing those horses down the stretch.'"
They run a big horse race at Bowie Race Course Saturday. The Campbell Handicap pays $75,000, and Blusiewicz's horse, a 4-year-old named Isella, will be one of the favorites. So we talked about the horse's breeding and his workouts and how Blue, as he is known, bought the horse as a weanling, sight unseen, because he had seen its mother break clocks one morning in Delaware 10 years earlier.
He wanted to talk about the horse, but it was Irene he talked about. He had been a hand on a tugboat in Baltimore harbor. Whenever a ship broke down at sea, Blue would help tow it to shore. They paid him money for doing that; he paid his own money to do what he really liked, which was hang around the race track. Irene saw the difference.
"So one time I got hurt in a car accident and couldn't get down to the waterfront for three days, and they told me they weren't going to pay me," Blue said. "So Irene says, 'Quit, honey. You miss three days in nine years and they treat you that way. Quit and go with the horses.'
"Can you imagine? That woman. How many women are going to tell you to take $7,500 and buy a weanling?"
That's what Isella cost, $7,500.When you've been a hand on a tugboat, hopelessly in love with the ponies, that is a lot of money. But Blue remembered what he had seen that morning in Delaware. He had seen a filly named Gallamar break from the gate in a workout with a stakes horse, the colt Foggy Road.
"They went a half in 46, and Foggy Road never did beat her," said Blue. A half-mile in 46 seconds is very good for a 2-year-old filly.
Blue remembers this vividly. Irene worked as an executive secretary for a big company while Blue, having seen Gallamar, followed the filly from Delaware to Detroit, cashing bets all the way. So eight or nine years later, long after the tugboat people did him wrong, Blue made a telephone call to Florida. He knew Gallamar had dropped a foal.
"I'll give you $5,000 for the weanling, sight unseen," Blue recalls saying to the owner.
"Make it $7,500," the owner said.
"You got the check," Blue said.
The colt was a beautiful chestnut, just the color Blue knew it would be, the color of Gallamar. Shortly after the purchase, Blue and Irene went to a restaurant where they ran into Al Isella, who had been a big man in the neighborhood when Blue was a kid.
"He was sponsoring kids' football teams and baseball teams. He bought us equipment all the time. If you needed a job, he made sure you got a job. He was always looking to help people. I hadn't seen him in 10 years. A carbon copy of Clark Gable, he was. Best-looking guy you ever seen."
The Baltimore police had records showing Al Isella was a bookmaker. Big deal, Blue figured. All he knew was the guy was good for the neighborhood, and he hadn't seen him in 10 years, and, full of himself, he figured he would do a nice thing for the guy who had done nice things for him.
"Why don't you name a horse 'Crazy Al'?" the bookmaker said to Blue.
"My colt was the biggest, best-looking s.o.b. you ever laid eyes on," Blue said the other day. "So I called him Isella. You don't use people's first names."
Isella, the colt, was full of promise. Blue, a trainer only five years then, and his co-owner, Constantine Beler of Baltimore, sent the colt to Laz Barrera, trainer of two Kentucky Derby winners. "Laz nominated him as a 3-year-old for every stake there is. They thought he could be any kind of a horse," Blue said, meaning Isella's potential was unlimited.
But the colt developed sore shins and in July of 1978, by then back in Blue's barn, the colt underwent painful injections in his shins to cure the chronic soreness.
"When we gave him those shots, he went wild, it hurt so much," Blue said. "He was like a wild horse. Three of us fought him for 1 1/2 hours and he was screaming. You ever hear a horse scream? He was going to kill us. Blood was coming down his legs and I guess he saw it and wanted to kill us for it."
That was in July. By September, Irene Blusiewicz was in bed, dying. She had fought cancer for nine years, Blue said. "She never once took a pain pill," he said. "She was an unbelievable lady."
On Jan. 23, two weeks after Irene's death, Isella returned to the races. He won twice, then lost by a head, and came back March 3 to win Bowie's Native Dancer Handicap, the first $50,000 race ever won by a Blusiewicz horse.
"Now we hope to win the Campbell," he said, "and then go across that bridge -- 'go across that bridge' means to run him in New York."
A good horse can make good money in New York. Isella is good enough, Blue said, that people have offered as much as $300,000 for him. "I ain't gonna sell him," Blue said. "I'm by myself now, so what the heck do I need money for? Isella's a lot of fun. It's something you dream of, a good horse."
Blue also is looking ahead to a time when his new filly runs.
"Even Isella didn't do the things she's done this early," Blue said. "Her name is Bluer Than Blue. Irene named her two days before she died. You'll be hearing about that filly."