Men can spend millions of dollars so they can have the kind of horses, and the kind of dreams, that Leon Blusiewicz now has at Hialeah.
Blusiewicz believes that his undefeated 3-year-old filly, Snow Plow, is the best horse of her age and sex in America. He thinks that his colt Lejoli will develop into one of the principal contenders for the Kentucky Derby. These assessments are partly the product of the Marylander's innate optimism, but he has every reason to be a positive thinker.
In a game in which success with high-class horses is so often derived from inherited wealth or the right connections, Blusiewicz is a completely self-made man.
Even when he was a youngster growing up in Baltimore, Blusiewicz believed in the independent pursuit of his own dreams. His father wanted him to be a ball player; he had a romantic vision of going to sea. At 16 he got a job on a vessel headed for South America, and he spent several years as a seaman. At other times he painted bridges, did ironwork, sold cars. And then he got horses in his blood.
Blusiewicz always had liked the track and had many friends who owned horses. During a seaman's strike in 1966, he went to work at the Maryland tracks as a hot walker and a groom. "I liked it so much," he said, "that I decided, 'This is what I've got to do.' " What he wanted to do was assemble enough money to buy a horse or two for himself and become a trainer, free of any owner's interference. Blusiewicz spent $5,000 for his first horse and won his first race. He was rolling.
This kind of small-time owner might aspire to have a repectable allowance horse or high-priced claimer one day; realistically, he couldn't hope for anything more. But Blusiewicz had a passion for studying pedigrees and looking for animals with hidden virtues that he could afford. He also proved to have an uncannily good eye for thoroughbred conformation, an unusual trait for a city kid who didn't grow up around horses. When he formed a partnership with Washington restaurateur Buzz Beler, he bought horses like Tiger Lord, Heavy Sugar and Isella--all of whom developed into good stakes winners.
Still, when Blusiewicz went to the Keeneland yearling sale in the fall of 1980, he wasn't equipped with a bankroll that would permit him to make any expensive mistakes. At the sale he spent $30,000 for a colt and $35,000 for a filly and, he said, "Spending $65,000 was a bold move for me. You're rolling the dice with these yearlings."
The colt, Lejoli, made his mark early, running well in several New York stakes, but encountering bad racing luck almost every time. Those performances and his subsequent training have made Blusiewicz conclude, "We've got a legitimate top horse for the Derby. You can't realize the ability he's got. He's going to be a kind of horse like Pleasant Colony, one that you can take a hold of who will give you one burst of speed."
But it was the filly, Snow Plow, who verified that glorious rags-to-riches stories can still happen in the racing game. Even before she had ever run, Blusiewicz was convinced that she was a potential stakes horse and so for the first start of her career he shipped her to New York with an obvious motivation: "I wanted to bet." He collected an $8.60 payoff when Snow Plow won by a neck and then did something out of character. He paid a $9,000 suppementary fee and entered her in the rich Selima Stakes at Laurel.
One of Blusiewicz's virtues as a trainer is his patience: he never rushes the horses in his care. To enter such an inexperienced animal in a $100,000 race was the kind of rash move usually made by overeager trainers, the kind of move that usually does horses harm.
But when Snow Plow came charging down the Laurel stretch to win decisively, Blusiewicz had scored a multiplicity of triumphs. He had won the biggest purse of his career. He had proved the soundness of his judgment. He had cashed a bet. He worked out a complex leasing agreement with a wealthy owner, Steve Peskoff, that provided him guaranteed income regardless of what the filly did in the future. And he accomplished a notable feat: "How many guys own and train the winner of a race like the Selima?"
Snow Plow went back to New York to win another stake and finish the year with a perfect three-of-three record. Her trainer thought she had proved that she was the best 2-year-old filly in the country, but the Eclipse Award voters disagreed, voting overwhelmingly for Calumet Farm's Before Dawn, even though she had never won at a mile or more.
"I don't see how anybody could have voted for Before Dawn over her," the trainer said. "It was politics: Calumet Farm versus Leon Blusiewicz. I think it was highway robbery."
Blusiewicz will have ample opportunity in 1982 to prove that Snow Plow was slighted. After the filly runs a couple times in Florida, he will aim for the Kentucky Oaks, the Triple Crown for fillies in New York and--maybe--the Preakness. Lejoli probably will run in the Flamingo Stakes and the Florida Derby as he prepares for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
"My big hope is to win the Preakness in front of the hometown folks," Blusiewicz said. "And I've got a feeling I'm going to be there."