Roger Laurin was spending one of his final mornings in the Belmont Park stable area, supervising the training of Chief's Crown, when a veteran horseman stopped him and offered a prediction. "You'll be back! You'll be back!" said the old-timer.
Laurin smiled. "No I won't," he said, knowing that his career as a trainer was about to end.
When Chief's Crown runs in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Aqueduct on Saturday, it will be the horse's final race and Laurin's, too. A few days later the trainer will put the 3-year-old colt on a van bound for a breeding farm in Kentucky; as soon as he does, Laurin will get in his car, take a leisurely drive to Florida and begin to think about all the golf and tennis he is going to enjoy during retirement. After the often crushing pressure of training Chief's Crown, he can't wait.
"I've been training horses for 30 years, and the game has changed dramatically in that time," Laurin said.
"What used to be a seasonal sport is now a 365-day-a-year grind. I haven't had a vacation since 1974. I thought for a long time that when I turned 50 I'd like to retire. If I couldn't get it done by the time I was 50, I never would."
It would be a spectacular climax to his career if Chief's Crown could win the world's richest horse race, but even if he doesn't Laurin can justifiably feel that he is going out a winner. He has done an almost flawless job of managing the colt through two seasons of arduous racing.
When Chief's Crown started developing into a star racehorse last year, plenty of racetrackers wondered if Laurin had the right stuff to direct him through the tough grind of the 3-year-old classics. Laurin never seemed to have the all-consuming passion for the game that many of his peers do; he wasn't the type who was going to train horses until the day he died.
But Laurin's skills had been underestimated. The only flaws in the 1985 campaign of Chief's Crown were those of the horse, not his trainer. The colt came into all his races in sharp condition and ran well -- but he nevertheless lost all three of the Triple Crown events.
Most sensible people wrote him off after that; if Chief's Crown couldn't cope with Tank's Prospect and Creme Fraiche, he certainly didn't figure to handle tough older rivals in the year-end championship races.
But when Chief's Crown swept to a victory in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont, beating Gate Dancer, Track Barron and Vanlandingham, he prompted an instant reevaluation of his talents. Laurin is happy to provide it: "This horse started his season in Florida last winter. He's run short, he's run long, he's run on the turf. He ran hard in all the Triple Crown races against a very good group of 3-year-olds and he's still running well in the fall. I'm proud of him. I think he's a phenomenal horse."
Laurin deserves a large measure of credit. Most 3-year-olds are knocked out by the rigors of the Triple Crown; none of the other one-two-three finishers in the series made it to the Breeders' Cup. But Laurin never took too much out of Chief's Crown -- "his program was never designed to end with the Triple Crown," the trainer said -- and he kept him going through the fall, enabling him to restore his reputation.
If Chief's Crown wins the Breeders' Cup he will almost surely be voted horse of the year. But whatever happens Saturday, his whole campaign has been the crowning achievement of Laurin's career.
"I can't think of a better 30 years," the trainer said, "and if I could have chosen the way I wanted to leave, this is surely the way I wanted it. I like the way this is ending."