Of the six entrants in the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash, five are trained by mere mortals, one by a man whose record and ability to transform horses have amazed racing fans.
Wayne Lukas? Nope. The trainer of Yes It's True, who is favored in today's race at Laurel, has won with a mere 17 percent of his starters this year. Graham Motion, the highly respected Maryland horseman who will saddle Storm Punch, wins at a 20 percent clip.
Neither Lukas nor Motion, nor even the trainers enshrined in the Racing Hall of Fame, ever has won races at a rate like Scott Lake, who will saddle the ex-claiming horse Nimble in the De Francis Dash. In 1999, the Pennsylvania-based Lake has started 294 horses and won 90 races -- a phenomenal 31 percent. Plenty of skeptics in the racing world believe that nobody can be this good, and they wonder if Lake has discovered some magic potion that rejuvenates washed-up thoroughbreds.
Quiet Guest was trounced in a $2,500 claiming race last year before Lake started training him this season. The 6-year-old improved to win a $6,500 claiming race in a runaway, then won an allowance race at Philadelphia Park.
Emperor Tigere had a 4-for-16 career record when Lake claimed him for $8,000. Under Lake's management, the gelding has won 11 of 13 races, including a victory in $50,000 claiming company.
Wicked Game U Play had been beaten in a slow maiden-claiming race when the owner put him in Lake's care. The trainer immediately entered him in a maiden-special-weight event, in which the colt exploded to win by 7 1/2 lengths, improving his Beyer Speed Figure from 49 to 71.
General Lark had finished fourth in a $10,000 claiming race when Lake took him. The 9-year-old not only won a $14,000 race in his next start, but he earned the best speed figure of his life -- in the 75th start of his career.
While most of his feats have attracted little attention outside of Philadelphia Park, Lake's claim of Nimble has brought him to a race with national significance.
The 7-year-old had been a consistent, allowance-class performer in the Mid-Atlantic Region for several years, but he had acquired a bad reputation. "You heard stories about him," Lake said. "He was a head case. He'd constantly do crazy things -- like gallop and stop in his tracks. I was very skeptical about taking the horse because he was so hard to train." But his clients, Eric and Greg Frahl, wanted to take the gamble, and so Lake claimed Nimble for $32,000 in February.
Lake said his exercise rider, John Silva, developed an excellent rapport with the obstreperous gelding. "Nimble's gotten real happy; he's changed his attitude," the trainer said. Under Lake's care, Nimble has won 6 of 7 races. Last month he won a $50,000 stakes event at Laurel, speeding seven furlongs in 1 minute 21 2/5 seconds to equal the track record. When it was evident that the field for the De Francis Dash would be a small one, Lake decided to take a shot. Handicappers unfamiliar with the trainer will take a look at Nimble's record and ask: Who is this guy?
The 34-year-old Lake grew up 20 minutes from Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Pa. His father owned a claiming horse or two, and Lake started hanging around the stables, working there on weekends. In the summer of 1990, Lake was training one horse as he planned to enroll in community college in the fall. But the horse started doing well, and Lake decided to pursue his higher education at the racetrack. By 1993 he had established himself at Penn National and last year he won with 27 percent of his starters. During the winter, the Frahls encouraged him to take their horses to Philadelphia Park, and Lake departed the minor leagues. At Philly his phenomenal success has won him more attention -- and suspicion.
Lake said he has no magic formula and he gives much of the credit for his success (as in the case of Nimble) to the quality of his employees. He said his grooms are the best-paid workers on the Philadelphia backstretch. Moreover, the success of the stable begets further success.
In an era when the use of illegal drugs is thought to be rampant at the nation's racetracks, any trainer who becomes an instant success is suspected of cheating. "I've been around tracks when rumors start flying," Lake said. "I hear the rumors [about him] constantly, but I don't get upset about them. I know that when one of my horses goes to the testing barn, I don't have anything to worry about."
Most cynical racetrack people will remain dubious that hard work and happy employees can account for a 31 percent success rate. But if his feats are untainted, Lake deserves to be considered one of the bright young stars of his profession.