Beulah-tiful - By Steve Montemarano

(Originally published in the March 10, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.) 

By Steve Montemarano

Steve Montemarano is an Ohio resident and an appointed member of the Governors Thoroughbred Race Fund Advisory Council.

Tucked inside Barn 7 on the chilly backstretch of Beulah Park is a miracle and perhaps Thoroughbred racing’s best kept secret—a laid-back 11-year-old Ohio-bred gelding with more than a million dollars in earnings, all but $748 earned locally. The horse, named Catlaunch, is rangy and calm. His eagerness to race is exceeded only by an unheard of durability and an affinity for peppermints.

Trainer Ivan Vazquez walks toward a stall. As I unwrap a peppermint, Catlaunch begins to reach for it. The trainer says “easy.” The horse pauses, looks at Vazquez, then gently takes the candy from my palm.

Vazquez says Catlaunch makes him feel like getting up in the morning. And that’s saying something, especially on a backstretch struggling for survival. Yet, Vazquez, Catlaunch, and Beulah Park are symbolic of better things to come. They resonate a genuine quality reflective of working-class horsemen in Ohio.

Born in Puerto Rico, Vazquez moved to Atlantic City, N.J., when he was 17. He rode races and matter of factly recalls the great riders. “My favorite was Braulio Baeza,” he said. Baeza rode 1963 Kentucky Derby winner Chateaugay, who was owned by native Ohioan John Galbreath—the late master of Darby Dan Farm.

But after several spills and a broken back, Vazquez went to work for trainer Luis Palacios and stuck with his boss for 23 years. However, on Sept. 22, 2005, everything changed when Palacios, a leading trainer in Ohio, was killed in a car accident. Vazquez was left without a job and the 4-year-old Catlaunch without a trainer. At that point the gelding had won a maiden special event and a few Ohio allowance races. Everything was up in the air. Then Catlaunch’s breeder and owner, Ron Fields, called and offered Vazquez the training job. Vazquez took it.

Fields’ loyalty was soon rewarded as Catlaunch became a stakes winner a few months later, in the aptly named Babst/Palacios Memorial Handicap at Beulah.

Having spent time with Vazquez and Catlaunch, I realize that feat wasn’t coincidental. It was fate.

“Mr. Palacios was so kind to me,” recalled Vazquez. “This horse is so special. He’s once in a lifetime.”

And much like Catlaunch’s inconspicuous rise to local fame, Beulah Park doesn’t garner national attention either. The track, opened in 1923, is a recognized historical landmark and is Ohio’s oldest racing facility. But Beulah Park is routinely the brunt of industry jokes because of low purses further diminished by neighboring casino competition. However, the paddock and grandstand have understated charm. Plus, the place is clean.

The racetrack may have the last laugh as Ohio’s pending video lottery terminal legislation ignites a racing revival in the Buckeye State.

The word Beulah is even mentioned once in the Bible. “No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate,” says Isaiah 62:4.

Ohio is steeped in racing tradition. Just a short drive from Beulah is a county fairground that hosts the Little Brown Jug, the Standardbred pacing Triple Crown event. Could Thoroughbred racing here achieve such lofty status? Yes, especially if legislators allocate 13⁄8% of all wagers to the Ohio Thoroughbred race fund. This will fuel state-bred stake races, breeder awards, and agriculture jobs—a major thrust of a balanced VLT program.

But Catlaunch is oblivious to all of this, and the condition of racing in Ohio has probably contributed to the gelding’s success and charm. “The races are hard to come by for him,” Vazquez said. “There aren’t many horses left. We race him when we can. We race him if he’s ready.”

From the looks of it, Catlaunch is ready most of the time. Currently his 39 wins from 91 starts give him a 43% strike rate and earnings of $1,060,844 in nine years of racing. Vazquez has excellent stats, too. For 2012 his 10 wins and 61% of runners in-the-money rank him third overall at Beulah.

Track veterinarian Lisa Santa-Emma marvels at Catlaunch. Dr. Santa-Emma says she loves him but jokes the horse loves her technician Debbie more.

“That’s because I give him peppermints,” mused Debbie.

Next up for Catlaunch is the Babst/Palacios Memorial Handicap scheduled at Beulah on the first Saturday in May.

Fields humbly added, “It’s an amazing thing. I bred an Ohio horse that kings and queens would like to have. Ivan deserves so much credit.”

Vazquez and Catlaunch defy the odds. With a little luck and prompt legislative backing, horse racing in Ohio will do the same.

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