For the past two years, Jove in Motion, a gelding, had raced in Maryland without distinction, and this spring he looked as if he were ready for the equine junkheap.
He had already passed through the hands of three of the state's most astute trainers -- Ron Alfano, King Leatherbury and Bud Delp. Having accomplished little for any of them, he had dropped to the bottom level of racing at Pimlico.
So when trainer Bill Wolfendale claimed the animal for $5,000 a month ago, a casual student of The Racing Form might conclude that he was spending his money foolishly on damaged goods. But students of Wolfendale's record would not leap to such a conclusion.
Jove in Motion stepped up in class, ran second twice and then on Monday won an $11,500 claiming race with ease. While such horses and their trainers never make headlines, this was typical of the achievements that have earned Wolfendale enormous respect among Maryland racetrackers.
"He's the best," said trainer Fred Baker. "He works hard, he has compassion for his horses, and nobody around here improves a horse so much."
On a racing circuit populated by some of the most successful claiming-horse trainers in the country, nobody has excelled Wolfendale's handling of cheap horses.At Pimlico this season, he has won with 38 of the 172 horses he has saddled, a 22 percent average that is better than all of the track's big-name operators. And he has achieved this consistency with animals who are by nature inconsistent and unreliable.
Would-be trainers don't get into the profession dreaming to become master manipulators of $5,000 claimers, but Wolfendale's whole life happened to point him in that direction. He grew up in Mars, Pa., where his parents owned show horses and hunters, and when he was 20 he bought some cheap horses and raced them at nearby Waterford Park. Within a year, he took over the training himself, and got an education managing a barn full of $1,500 animals.
Wolfendale was a big fish in that small pond, but when he arrived in Maryland eight years ago, he was a minnow in an ocean full of sharks. He owned most of his horses; he didn't have wealthy owners behind him. And he was competing head-on with trainers whose resources seemed almost limitless. h
"They've got more horses and more money," Wolfendale said. "I've got a limited bankroll. They can drop horses down to win a race. How many times do you see Delp do that? I can't afford to do that and my owners can't. They can take a shot at claiming a horse for $10,000 or $20,000. I can't afford to make any mistakes."
For the last year, Wolfendale hasn't made many mistakes. He has claimed horses intelligently and judiciously: "I like a horse who knows how to win, the kind of horse who can win four or five races a year." The horses he acquires don't exhibit the kind of miraculous wakeup that makes skeptics wonder if their success is coming from a needle. Instead, they seem to improve gradually and hold their form over a long period of time.
Typical of them is a 5-year-old named Bold March. Wolfendale has sent the horse to the post 17 times this year, but instead of tailing off, he has won five of his last eight races. He babies these tough campaigners between their races, and he thinks that is one of the reasons for his success. "I don't train horses as hard as a lot of people do," Wolfendale said. "I like to get those old, sore horses and back off them a bit."
Most claiming-horse trainers aspire to move up to better-class stock as surely as a Class A ballplayer wants to advance to the major leagues. But Wolfendale has already had a couple of flings with higher-grade animals.
He claimed a filly named Ancient Rule for $8,500, developed her into a stakes runner and promptly sold her for $48,000. "I don't like to put all my eggs in one basket," he said. "I'd rather have four or five horses for $10,000."
A couple of years ago, Wolfendale did have one wealthy owner behind him, and he started acquiring more expensive horses. He said the owner insisted on making too many decisions, but, whatever the reason, the results were disastrous. Wolfendale realized the virtues of autonomy, retrenched, and concentrated again on training the cheapies. Nobody does it much better.