"I'm not really a trainer," says trainer Adrian Maxwell. "I'm basically a salesman."
Indeed, buying and selling thoroughbreds is Maxwell's main activity, but racing fans who have watched him operate in New York and Florida know that he is one of the sharpest trainers in the business. He has a shrewd understanding of international racing; he knows how to take unproductive horses from Europe and win big money with them in the United States.
Maxwell could score his greatest triumph of this sort Saturday, when he brings 4-year-old Persian Tiara to Laurel. Last year the filly had a long, hard campaign in England and earned all of $14,000. This year, with Maxwell as her trainer, she has won $300,000, and she could add considerably to that total in the Washington, D.C. International.
Maxwell was a trainer in his native Ireland, but he found it wasn't easy to make a living with middle-level horses. After a horse has won a maiden race and one or two low-level allowance events, there is no place to run him for decent purse money unless he is a top stakes horse. "A horse who might be worth $20,000 in England could be worth $80,000 in the U.S., because there are so many more chances to run him here," Maxwell said.
So, he reasoned, why not try to buy horses cheap in Europe and sell them for a profit in America? Maxwell looked for horses who had shown some ability and had pedigrees that U.S. buyers would recognize. He looked especially for "tidy, little horses" who would benefit from the lower weight assignments in U.S. races and would be shifty enough to handle the sharper turns here.
Three winters ago, Maxwell came to Hialeah with a contingent of 15 horses he intended to race and sell, but he learned a hard lesson: "Training here is completely different. I trained them my usual way and I won one race all winter. It was a disaster. I had to learn a completely new game. In particular, I had to learn to train them for more speed."
Maxwell learned. As he did, and as he made regular trips back home to replenish his stock, he started winning races in eye-catching fashion. His horses would win at 10-to-1, 20-to-1, 50-to-1, paying such big prices that horse players thought the stable couldn't be betting, that these longshots were winning by accident.
But as the pattern continued, people started to realize that Maxwell's successes were no accident, and the trainer confirms this.
"I love to gamble," he said. "Here it's not quite as satisfying because you're beating the machines and not the bookmakers, but I love to set one up. It's very satisfying to pick out a horse, buy him right, get the job done and then sell him right."
Persian Tiara is the only member of Maxwell's stable who hasn't been for sale, but otherwise she epitomizes the type of horse who can find a new life in America. The filly wasn't good enough to win stakes in England, so she had to run in handicaps, where the purses weren't much and she had to tote as much as 133 pounds. But she was a stout-hearted runner who could go 1 1/2 miles or more, and in the United States the competition at those distances is usually rather soft.
The first time she ran 1 1/2 miles in the United States was in the Dixie Handicap at Pimlico this spring, and she paid a typical Maxwell mutuel: $41. She beat males again in the Seneca Handicap at Saratoga, and in her last start captured a $200,000 grass route at Louisiana Downs.
But is she good enough to win the International?
"A month ago," Maxwell acknowledged, "I would have said no. But when you look at the opposition and the way she's running now, she's definitely in the picture."
The International would be a most fitting race for Maxwell to win, for it was the Laurel classic that first proved foreign horses could withstand the rigors of a transoceanic trip and successfuly adjust to U.S. racing. But when the race was born, nobody could imagine that European horses could be shipped here en masse and dependably turn into money-making U.S. racehorses. Maxwell has proved that it is possible, and he has made it look almost easy.