Nothing enthralls a horseman as much as seeing unmistakable signs of brilliance in an unraced 2-year-old. Such an animal can inspire boundless visions of glory; it also can provide a great chance to cash a bet.
Stanley Rieser saw those early indications of immense talent in Out of Hock, who finished second -- and injured himself -- in the Hopeful Stakes Saturday. He had not thought that the gelding had much potential until one morning when he sent him out for a five-eighths-of-a-mile workout. Rieser snapped his stopwatch after Out of Hock had gone three furlongs, and the time was a characteristically mediocre 38 seconds. At the finish line he snapped again and looked at the watch in disbelief. Could this horse possibly have done the last quarter-mile in 23 seconds flat?
Rieser thought he had made a mistake, so a few days later he again worked Out of Hock, instructing jockey Don Brumfield to restrain him for a quarter-mile, then let him roll. With Brumfield applying a hammerlock, Out of Hock sped the quarter in a sizzling 22 seconds; Rieser dashed onto the track, waving his arms, yelling for Brumfield to slow down. But the cat was out of the bag. Pretty soon the whole race track knew about Out of Hock, and when he made his first start he was a 3-to-5 favorite. He won by the length of the stretch and was four for four until Saturday.
Rieser said yesterday that Out of Hock popped a splint in his left foreleg in Saturday's race, but "there's a good chance he'll run again this season."
In the past, Rieser has been more circumspect about training his unraced 2-year-olds. He once saw Out of Hock's kind of precocity in a colt named High Bird, and the way Rieser prepared him for his first race was a smashing success.
High Bird had shown such promise in his training at Churchill Downs that Rieser confided to his jockey, Herb Arroyo, "This is going to be my Christmas horse. Be out here early in the morning. We're going to daylight him."
Daylighting, in race track parlance, means just the opposite: working a horse in darkness, away from the prying eyes of clockers and other trainers. Shortly after 5 a.m., Rieser put a saddle on High Bird and instructed Arroyo to put the horse in gear at the five-eighths pole.
"There was a little light by the pole," Rieser remembered, "so I was going to snap my stopwatch there, then drive across the infield and snap him at the finish line. I didn't want anybody to see me, so I borrowed an old, beat-up Ford from one of my grooms and drove it to the infield."
As High Bird galloped by, the trainer snapped his watch, hopped into the Ford and pressed the accelerator. "The next thing -- crunch!" Rieser said. He smashed into a concrete bench in the infield, demolishing the front end of the car. As steam billowed from the radiator, the dazed trainer managed to scramble out of the car, dash a few yards to the finish line and snap his stopwatch: 58 2/5 seconds! He had a runner!
"I couldn't move the car," Rieser said, "so when the track superintendent started wondering how a beat-up old Ford got in the middle of the infield, I said, 'One of my boys must have got a little drunk last night.' The car cost me $275."
Rieser got it back. The next Saturday High Bird won by six lengths and paid $5.80.