When Dick Ferris saddles Star de Naskra for the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park on Saturday, he may feel like an intruder who has crashed a fancy private party.
Around him will be trainers like David Whiteley and LeRoy Jolley, men who were born into the upper echelon of the sport, men who have spent their lives running high-class horses in big-money races, men who probably have never worked on a sore-legged $3,000 claimer in their lives.
Ferris can only dream what it would be like to walk into a barn, as the Whiteleys and Jolleys do, and survey stall after stall of prime horseflesh. When Ferris surveys the population of his barn at Delaware Park, he sees 11 claiming horses and the only first-rate horse he has ever trained, Star de Naskra.
Even Ferris would have found the idea preposterous a few months ago, but Star de Naskra very well could win the $300,000 race that will help decide the horse of the year title. His chances were boosted when trainer Laz Barrera declined to enter Affirmed, because of his displeasure with his weight assignment. So Star de Naskra will be a well-supported third choice in the wagering, behind Spectacular Bid and Coastal.
Ferris has come a long way from Charles Town, where he started training horses in 1958. He had attended the University of Virginia with the intention of becoming an engineer, but when he worked part-time on a nearby horse farm he got the game in his blood. After graduation he went to work at the race track, first in West Virginia and then in Maryland.
"I was doing pretty well," he said, "until I was burned out in a fire. I decided that must be an omen that I should be doing something else. So I went into the car wash business. I went broke. I decided that was an omen telling me to go back to the track."
When he returned to racing, Ferris bought a crippled 8-year-old named Merry Master, who would provide ample evidence of his trainer's skills. Merry Master was a walking catalogue of equine infirmities, but Ferris babied him, worked on his legs constantly and coaxed the old horse to 23 victories.
Merry Master got Ferris' career rolling again. Over the years, Maryland racing fans have come to respect the way he handles horses, especially old, cheap distance runners. Ferris keeps inherently unrealiable animals in consistent form over long periods of time.
Working with such animals is a great education for a horseman. The many years that Bud Delp spent training claiming horses equipped him beautifully to handle Spectacular Bid. But Ferris' success never seemed to lead him anywhere -- except to more claiming horses.
Star de Naskra was decently bred but he was not cut out to be a champion, nor did he display much precocity. He was trounced in stakes competition as a 2-year-old, and he was still a notch below top-flight runners at the age of 3. Trainers with a barn full of stars might have written him off.
But Ferris could not afford this luxury, and Star de Naskra has blossomed before his eyes this season. The colt has won six straight races (with one disqualification). During that streak Ferris brought him along gradually, running him at first in sprint races, his specialty, then in a weak mile and one-eighth stakes race, and finally against good horses in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga.
"I thought that race was sensational," Ferris said. Star de Naskra battled for the lead all the way, brushed off the challenges of good horses such as Cox's Ridge and drew away at the finish, covering the 1 1/8 miles in 1:47 3/5. That performance encouraged him to take a shot against the best horses in the country Saturday.
"When your luck is good, that's when you're supposed to run," Ferris said, "and we've been lucky so far this year. The horse has had no problems and he's done everything right. Still, he requires a lot of worry. This is not a case where I've got 10 good horses and if something happens to this one, I've still got the other nine. That's why I worry a lot."