When Dale Capuano leans on a rail and talks about training horses, his eyes gleam with a passion for his profession. It's 9:30 a.m., and Capuano finally has time to catch his breath, with his workday well past its midpoint.
Capuano has been at Bowie Race Course since 5 a.m., having watched the sun appear over the horizon and cast a reddish glow over the track. To say the least, he loves the routine. "Horses . . . " he paused, trying to express his commitment to the animals, "well, that's just about all there is."
With his untucked knit shirt, faded jeans and old tennis shoes, Capuano looks, at 23, more like a graduate student than a horse trainer with five years experience and a couple of stakes winners in his stable.
Those stakes winners have raised some eyebrows among the more experienced people in his field. The winners include Silano, who won the $40,000 Playpen race for 2-year-olds July 12. That victory was a special one for Capuano, since his parents own the horse.
The other two stakes victories came courtesy of Along Came Jones, a horse noted in the Capuano stable for his playfulness as well as his career earnings of $76,000.
"Look at this," said Capuano's wife, Pam, who works with her husband at the stables and grooms the two stakes winners. Pam reached deep into Along Came Jones' mouth and pulled out the 4-year-old's tongue, which has a small piece missing and a noticeable scar.
"We think he was too playful as a colt and bit into some barbed wire or something," she said. She let the horse go and he reared up, grasping an empty frying grease carton in its teeth and shaking it as a dog would a stick, then putting his nose over the wall and nuzzling for an apple. "He's been getting jealous of all the attention Silano's been getting lately," Pam Capuano said.
Pam and Dale met five years ago in Barn No. 9 at Bowie, where Pam was working for another trainer and Dale was working for his father, Phil Capuano, also a trainer.
The elder Capuano permitted his son to do much of the training during his high school years at Largo, so that when Dale graduated and got his trainer's license at 18, he was ready to take over for his father.
Capuano said that even when he first started training full-time just out of high school, the older trainers accepted him as one of their peers. "I was kind of always around, and was used to everything and everybody," he said.
So he was able to concentrate on the horses, which was all he wanted to do. His progress as a trainer has been in fits and starts -- at one time he didn't have any horses and a couple of times he has been training only one.
Now, he has 16 in the stable and is racing eight of them. He also has had 16 winners this season, one short of his previous best, in 1983. "This will be my best season," he said.
Of course, Capuano has help. His wife and five others work for him part-time. Several are relatives, and Capuano's younger brother, Gary, works in another barn. "It's a real family affair," said Anthony Capuano, one of the cousins working at the stable. "Almost everyone in the family works with horses."
Silano is the prize of the stable now, having won his debut and then the Playpen. He may race at Saratoga next month, but Capuano said he isn't sure Silano will be ready.
"The biggest thing is to know your horse's limitations," he said. "If you have a good horse, you have to know when you're pushing him as far as he can go, and not to push him any further."
That seems to be Capuano's creed for himself, as well. When asked his goals as a trainer, he does not speak of Triple Crown winners or 200-horse stables.
"I'd like to have 25 or 30 horses, with a good many stakes horses," he said. "And I'd want to maintain a quality stable, too. As far as the Kentucky Derby or things like that, I don't really worry about them. If it happens, great. But it doesn't really matter. I'm happy with what I'm doing now."