Before he reports to his job as an usher in the Laurel clubhouse, Fred Tallarico arises at dawn and spends his morning taking care of a thoroughbred named Scholarship.
He has been doing this seven days a week for more than two years, and the gelding has repaid his efforts by losing 54 races in a row.
Many trainers would feel angry or exasperated. But for Tallarico, Scholarship remains the same object of affection and hope that he was when he was born.
When the little colt struggled to his feet an hour after he was born, Tallarico looked at him admiringly, felt like a proud parent and thought to himself, "This is my big horse." He had been waiting for a big equine breadwinner since he started training horses as a sideline in 1963.
Students of thoroughbred pedigrees would not have shared the optimism that Tallarico felt in 1976. Scholarship's sire, Throwin Things, did not exactly have the credentials to be a progenitor of champions. "He had chips in both knees and he was a hard-luck horse, it," Tallarico said. "There was always something taking him out of training. That's why he didn't win a race till he was 7."
Scholarship's dam, Peppermint Doll, had an even less productive racing career. "She had a pinched nerve in her shoulder and the closest she ever got was third," Tallarico said.
Both animals were retired at about the same time, so Tallarico and his partner Anne Jaskinia decided to breed them. The matings of Throwin Things and Peppermint Doll produced three foals, none of whom would greatly surmount his parentage.
But genetic considerations were not troubling Tallarico when he started to train Scholarship. He and Jaskinia, who works with him every morning at their barn at Bowie, liked the young horse's looks. "You never know what a horse is going to be," Tallarico said. But he may have gotten an inkling when Scholarship made his racing debut at Bowie in September 1978, against cheap maiden claiming horses, and finished last by 21 lengths.
Scholarship needed several races before he seemed to understand what the game was all about, but he finally started running creditably in rock-bottom, $5,000 company. Over the last two years he has managed to finish second or third 14 times and has earned $11,142. What he has failed to do is win.
Some handicappers would contemptuously dismiss such an animal as a "sucker horse," devoid of a will to win, but Tallarico bristles at the suggestion.
"I consider Scholarship a hard-luck horse, just like his father," he said. "In at least 20 of his starts, he's run into bad luck. He's been pinched back quite a few times, been hit leaving the gate, pushed wide. In one race, he blew a shoe just when he looked like a sure winner. Another time when he looked like a winner, the jockey dropped the whip. But even when these things happen to him, he doesn't give up. He's got determination. He's got the will to win."
Tallarico will continue to wait for Scholarship to manifest this will with the optimism and patience that are necessary for anyone who is going to spend his or her life around horses.