Every young man who wants to become a horse trainer arrives at the racetrack with the same basic dream.
He will acquire his education by working as a groom, then somehow find an owner willing to entrust him with a thoroughbred. He gets hot with his one-horse stable, encouraging the owner to expand his operation. More horses mean more victories, and now other owners start asking for his services. As his stable grows, he becomes established as one of the leading trainers at the track.
The scenario sounds plausible, but it is in fact a longshot proposition. Would-be trainers, operating on a shoestring, are usually undone by the fragility of their horses, the fickleness of their owners or the harsh economic realities of the game.
But for one young trainer in Maryland, the dream did materialize. Ron Alfano, wao started his career with a one-horse stable, manages 30 horses now and ranks second in the trainer standings at Laurel. His performance this fall has been extraordinary.
Alfano has saddled 98 horses and won 24 races, a record that outshines those of Dick Dutrow, Bud Delp and King Leatherbury, the Big Three trainers who have dominated Maryland racing for so long. His success at Laurel is the high point of his brief career, but for Alfano it is only the beginning. He acknowledges his ambition: "I'd like to be one of a Big Four."
Knowledgeable racetrackers think he is odds-on to do it.
Alfano decided on his career ambition when he was growing up in Ashland, Va., and going to the Maryland tracks on weekends with his father. To break into the profession, he went to work as a groom for Dutrow. f
Dutrow is a brilliant trainer and, unlike many of his counterparts, is willing to share his knowledge with his employees. So many aspiring young trainers went to work for him that his barn sometimes resembled a school for horsemanship. Students like Alfano learned some valuable lessons from their mentor.
"He'd work hard on all his horses," Alfano said. "There were no tricks; just a lot of hard work. He was very patient with his horses. He'd give them time. He'd teach you not to ask too much of a horse, and to run him where he could win."
After four years at the Dutrow Academy, Alfano decided he was ready to strike out on his own. It was a chancy venture. "I was working with a small bankroll; in fact, none at all," he said. He trained a couple of cheap horses for a former classmate, with moderate success. Then he was introduced to Erwin Mendelson, a Washington accountant who thought that owning one racehorse would be a pleasant diversion.
Alfano began training as many as a dozen horses for Mendelson, and his success with them attracted the attention of other owners -- just the way it was supposed to happen. Now Alfano trains more than 30 thoroughbreds for 18 different owners, making him one of the six biggest operators in the state.
In one sense, Alfano doesn't fit the image of a large-scale trainer. Men who run big public stables have to be as expert at handling owners as horses. Most of them are blib self promoters. The soft-spoken Alfano isn't.
"Ronnie isn't much of a fast-talker type," said Laurel's racing secretary, Lou Raffetto Jr. "But he knows the right people. He's respected by the right people. I guarantee you by this time next year he'll have 45 horses."
That is just what Alfano wants. He knows he cannot compete on even terms with Dutrow, Delp and Leatherbury while they have such numerical superiority, with as many as 70 horses in their barns. But in a year or two Maryland racing is likely to be dominated by a Big Four.