Longform: How Ray Handal wins the workout

The Battle of the Racetrack ... New York-based trainer Ray Handal takes up his position in the Clocker's House at Belmont Park's Training Track on Sunday morning. From his spot, Handal observes workouts, communicates with staff, and gets a feel for his horse's fitness.
The Battle of the Racetrack ... New York-based trainer Ray Handal takes up his position in the Clocker's House at Belmont Park's Training Track on Sunday morning. From his spot, Handal observes workouts, communicates with staff, and gets a feel for his horse's fitness.

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If you’re nearsighted, sans eyewear, then it is difficult to make out the ambling silhouettes from a little less than a half furlong away. A distant light within creates a sort of eerie glow in what looks like a long hallway with windows. There are people unknown there too … you can see them … and it appears that they are either leading, or riding some fantastic beasts. Like reading the novel Bird Box, one’s imagination canters away quickly. What you can tell is that these bodies are going round and round, repeating what looks like an internal trek. Is there just one of them inside that structure, or a whole hoard? It is hard to tell on this treadmill.

Being dark out on this early Sunday morning around 5:30, a constant brisk wind whips across one’s face. The source seems to come from nearly every angle, as the present chill would like nothing better than to cleave you in half. What really gives the scene even more radiant imagery, is the fuchsia and carroty disco-like strobe from the Dunkin’ Donuts on the Hempstead Turnpike. Even at this hour, people zip in and out of the store, lugging out coffee and sugar in copious amounts … the appropriate downloads for a human USB. Does anyone know about those shadows, or are they simply ignoring the parade going on across the street? When asked about the motion beyond that fence, one Dunkin’ patron said, “I don’t know man, something to do with the training of horses, I guess.” Pondering this for a few minutes, wondering if a Pew Research study was needed, seemed like a good use of time.

Just then, into that Dunkin’ parking lot with a cool linear move, swooped a red-colored flash that Barry Allen would appreciate. From the stealth drive emerged Raymond Handal, or “Ray” as he is known. He offered an enthusiastic handshake, a “hop in,” and just like that, the day started. Where were we? Just across from one of those hallowed spots in North American horse racing, beautiful Belmont Park. In his early 30s, Handal has a presence about him that is infectious, and he puts you at ease with masculine colloquialisms like “bro” and the oft-used “bud.” When you are gregarious, initial conversations flow like old times, and Handal is the type that makes you feel welcome. You could easily imagine him at a stand desk, donning a sharp-looking Armani, managing a giant hedge fund, and wearing one of those Bluetooth earpieces. He’d be on with Hong Kong, then easily shift gears once the European markets opened. He has a clipped, quick speech, and even though he was born in California, he came to Florida with his folks as a kid, and never left until it was time to make the move up the coast. Instead of crunching financial data over eggs and toast, Handal’s breakfast consists of managing a cadre of Thoroughbreds for his ever-expanding stable. He is a horse trainer, and a good one at that. Since he went out on his own, saddling his 1st in November 2014, his time running on the New York Racing Association (NYRA) tracks (Aqueduct/Belmont/Saratoga), and elsewhere for that matter, have continually yielded impressive results. In 2021, he eclipsed over $2 million in earnings, garnering respect and the admiration of his peers. As he says, “What I want to do is maintain high standards, and you do that with humility and integrity.”   

Racing horses, in this case Thoroughbreds, takes a highly-specialized toolkit of knowledge, and it all begins, not in the starting gate with jockeys bedazzled in beautiful colors, but in training. Once they are broken and begin learning how to be racehorses … breezing … drills … maintenance … working in company … that becomes the day-in, day-out routine. These are superior athletes that are bred for this lifestyle, but there isn’t a “handbook” per se, when it comes to conditioning. Getting to know the members of your barn is one of the keys to unlocking potential because it’s just like teaching in a classroom full of students. Some learn better through rote memorization, while others require visual applications … maybe one needs to be put at the front of the class to enhance focus, while still others are assigned more advanced work because they are a step ahead of the rest. Handal is a trainer, and when it comes to how conditioners like him “manage” their operations, everyone is a little bit different. Some run their barn like they would their house … they are the monarchs of their castle. While others delegate, allowing their subordinates to exercise Reagan-like oversight. If you train everyone properly, allowing for humans to be humans, then the equine athletes can do best what they do … hold this sport up in the best possible way.

I wanted to know, an “Insider’s Guide” of sorts, how something like the workout, something deemed somewhere between the mysterious to the mundane, is conducted. In Thoroughbred racing, whether you are a trainer, an owner, or a horseplayer, most would affirm that exercise for a horse is essential, but what is up for interpretation is a runner’s work tab. We know that all workouts are analogous, in that a distance is met, but no two are the same when it comes to their results. It all seems a bit hazy … how does a conditioner decide when, how, and why a Thoroughbred should breeze? And a follow-up, when you encounter those “figs” at the bottom of each horse’s entry in the program, how do we interpret what they really mean?

With a proto-Rosetta Stone of sorts, how can we translate the overall impact on the equine athlete? Questions asked … answers … well, those are difficult. What we need is a good ole anthropological case study. Enter Handal … By talking with him and observing his “form,” it becomes readily apparent that what it comes down to are a hash of influences, personalities, and the importance of a culture inside the barn ... a mix of “California cool and New York swag.” Some of those influences come from the present, while others hail from the past. Trainers are creatures of habit, and though they are willing and able to apply the psychologist’s go-to application of “try new things,” they form ideas based on who they themselves worked under. What they observed when they were younger, the angles, tips of the trade, and all that they soaked up at different stages of their development, are continually applied in what is a cycle that repeats itself. It doesn’t mean that anything cannot be pitched or tossed; rather, what happens in many cases is a slow, incremental change over time. All of it is obscured, in a set of movements that the public never really gets to see or understand. In a high-pressure stakes game like Thoroughbred racing, the culture of the workout is central to a stable’s development and success. It is a world within a world, beyond that fence. Thus, a barn is constantly altering its course, switching leads so to speak, as trying to win the workout is never done.

Bodies in motion ... Handal and his chief assistant Eli, check the board ... after some cancellations, they have to make adjustments concerning how the morning workouts will proceed. Patience and flexibility are names of the game ...
Bodies in motion ... Handal and his chief assistant Eli, check the board ... after some cancellations, they have to make adjustments concerning how the morning workouts will proceed. Patience and flexibility are names of the game ...

A Breeze Thru History …

Over the equine racing ages, workouts were and continue to be fodder, for speculation, inuendo, and the stuff of copy. The great sportswriter Steve Cady penned a piece in the New York Times on April 28, 1973 in which he quoted a trainer who said, “He walked away from the other horse at the end … The track was real muddy, and the clockers said it was a fantastic workout.” Cady went on to report, “He destroys oats the way he usually mows down rivals on the track, and the theory is that slow workouts tend to make him sluggish.” He finished with, “The “other horse” was Angle Light, Edwin Whittaker's surprise winner of the Wood last Saturday …” The one that worked so well? It was the indomitable Secretariat … His trainer? The irascible Lucien Laurin … Both had their quirks, and workouts … well, they were essential to the Triple Crown winner’s success. The famed story associated with Laurin springs to mind, when after his victory in the second leg of the Triple Crown, The Preakness, the trainer debated whether to work “Big Red” hard, or rest him for the grueling 1½ in the Belmont. Working ensued, and the rest … is history.

To treat … to prepare … to make ready … to prime … The word “condition” denotes the very idea that is embedded in every workout … a seed planted; that being, to use one’s lungs, to sweat, with a keen eye on building both speed and stamina. Horsepeople use words like “scopey” and talk about “lines” when it comes to describing the “look” of a Thoroughbred. The lexicon is just as descriptive when applied to what is historically called “breezing.” In North America, there are 3, 4, 5, and even 6 or 7 furlong efforts, but it wasn’t always that way. The use of these distances, and their frequency, have developed over time, as trainers have molded their methods to suit the era. Once upon a time, most horses ran so often that the idea of an extended set of workouts every week on a training track would be like me saying I had found a way to teleport to the Moon. Back in Seabiscuit’s time, being “in form” was rounded out against other competition, sprinkling with a “freshening” or two. Unless you were focused on a specific race, horses were seen as needing conditioning in order to get into form. Many did not work like they do today, even though horses still travel “circuits” just like a salesman would. I asked longtime NY-based trainer Mike Miceil about the history of the “Tab,” and he reminded me that, “Before, you never used to be concerned about the ground ... muddy or not, it didn’t matter … now, with horses being more delicate, you have to know when to go, and when not to go.” Whether you were training Secretariat or one off-the-claim, work was work … and that’s how trainers trained …  

With horses running less as the 20th century marched on, the workout became more and more about assessment. An era of metrics, percentages, and spreadsheets began to pivot practices, so trainers had to develop new methodologies. The famous form cycle, which handicappers sought as a litmus test for readiness (usually the 3rd race being a telltale), was looked upon as a sign of the ultimate “fitness.” The workout became an integral piece to not only getting a runner ready to compete, but also a tool to keep them that way. Now, into the next century, the workout continues to provide an understanding of how a horse is drilling. If you are a conditioner though, you have to know how to not only measure the “numbers,” but also interpret them. Times, provided by a professional on-track “Clocker” is important, but so is tailoring expectations, and the results of the work tab. In the end, going fast is the game, but moving in the proper direction is too.

Green Light ... Just before his runners head to training, Ray Handal takes one more look ... checking to make sure everything is set.
Green Light ... Just before his runners head to training, Ray Handal takes one more look ... checking to make sure everything is set.

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Origins of Ray Handal’s works …

To sort out the post-modern Thoroughbred workout, that early chilled call on Sunday morning provided a look behind the curtain and was telling from the beginning. The training “schedule” … it morphs and alters. To begin, rain on Saturday was supposed to happen, and … it didn’t like most thought. So, Handal Racing’s Tuesday’s dossier was summarily moved up. When it comes to conditioning you must be flexible, prone to fits and starts, and most of all, despite your best efforts against … you must be patient. The principal parked outside Barn 35, a recently refurbished Belmont structure, and made his way past the bunkroom and Equi-sizer … striding along, you could tell he was accessing a training map in his mind, while constantly surveying the scene. “It’s going be a nice light day,” he says with a relaxed tone, “I think the pace will be pretty slow.” I noticed that despite this expression of California cool, he was constantly roving and surveying even the tiniest of details. As he glanced in the dim light to his right, where a little patch of grass is growing, he said, “This is my lawn project, it will be good for the horses to graze.” I am not sure if he was entirely serious, but as I learned, that’s Handal … a mix of great wit, intense concentration, and stream of consciousness-thinking. 

Once inside, that “slow pace” he was just talking about was anything but … you could tell that a flurry of activity was already underway. Grooms and exercise riders were bustling about on the trade floor. Rodrigo Montecino, called “Eli,” is Handal’s Lead Assistant. With the stable from the very beginning, Eli is the floor captain, and he has a “cool as a cucumber” demeanor when it comes to dealing with animals and people. Brief greetings quickly turn to whatever the latest issues of the morning are at the time. Handal is in his element at this point, and he steps up to a “white board” like it’s an orchestral podium. With little b/w magnets, he starts to move the tags around. Handal quickly realizes before the coattails are fluffed, and the baton is tapped that a few of the exercise riders are not present. Before he can get out “What happened to … ”, Eli has already answered, “They’re not showing.” Handal responds, “Geez … ok … that’s going to put a wrench in a few things.” See, exercise riders are hugely important, and in some cases, they are just as significant as the mainline jockeys that ride a trainer’s horses. As Handal likes to say, “You are only as good as your staff, and here at Belmont there is a strong market for hiring and keeping the best.” At times, loyalty is directly competing with the almighty dollar, and barns work hard to hang on to their folks. It can make or break an operation.

Handal knows this because he formed a strong series of works himself under the auspices of some training icons. After growing up going to the races with his Jamaican-born father, he decided that becoming a conditioner was his great dream. He used connections that put him in contact with some of the best barns on the East Coast. Apprenticeships with Jonathan Sheppard, Michael Matz, Kenny McPeek, Christophe Clement, and Anthony Dutrow provided him with a solid foundation. Learning to actually ride from Sheppard gave him an increased sense of perspective, and instead of immediately going to Saratoga for the legendary trainer (which he had the opportunity to do), he made the decision to stay and “school” at Sheppard’s Farm in Maryland. He later hooked up with Matz’s outfit, where he learned different exercise techniques for runners, and what to look for on the training track. McPeek gave him a good Wall Street lesson in business management, while Clement emphasized the importance of veterinary science. But it was Dutrow … Dutrow was, to hear Handel tell it, “The Master …” His mentor’s organizational skills and inventiveness heavily influenced everything his student does today. “He gave me a great sense about what to do with a horse that is running into issues and how to solve them,” lauded Handal. Those experiences, including a stay with Tom Morley, gave him the confidence to go out on his own when the time was right. Other trainers that he has studied included Steve Asmussen, whom he has admired as someone that, “Doesn’t put an emphasis on times and clocking, but instead looks at the bigger picture for getting a horse in the best shape possible.” The past is present, for someone like Handal, and he is quick to rattle off what he has learned, and who was the source.

Turning back to his board, he starts to check the day’s battle plan, which is now evolving. The scripting that happened the night before, has now been retro-fitted. With some of the defections, he is going to have to mix-and-match. Not long ago he hired a couple of new exercise riders by bringing them to the states to work. The problem is … they are still very green, just out of the jockey school in Puerto Rico. Investing in them is something Handal takes great pride in, and his “Racetrack Spanish” is a work-in-progress. “I know how to tell them what speed I want them to go,” he says with a wry smile, “I think they understand me, we will figure it all out.” The board helps everyone know their place, and where they need to be. As for the horses, some will “jog,” while other runners will just take a walk. He tells me that he gauges their fitness by where they are in their training loop. If a race is fast approaching, then “maintenance” works are all that is necessary. To those that aren’t “racetrackers,” the idea that, “Horses will tell you what they want to do,” sounds rather metaphysical, and conjures visions of “horse whispering.” But lest we forget, that these Thoroughbreds are part of a “team” … in this instance, they are clad in the red and black … Handal’s colors. Knowing their tendencies, their feeding habits, and how they approach workouts, is all part and parcel when it comes to getting them ready … ready for the “Battle of the Racetrack.”

Riders Up! Members of the Davis Family ... Jackie, Dylan, and Katie, take their mounts out for trainer Ray Handal on a Sunday morning.
Riders Up! Members of the Davis Family ... Jackie, Dylan, and Katie, take their mounts out for trainer Ray Handal on a Sunday morning.

The Battle of the Racetrack

After staring at that white board for a matter of seconds, Handal knew what pieces he had to move around to get the day started, so it could move along at a great clip. The schedule works in early morning cycles, and this time of year, while the Main Track is closed at Belmont, the adjacent Training Track becomes a hub of activity. As Handal told me, “The times to train are specific at 7:15 and 7:45, and then at 9:00 and 9:30,” he quickly remarked. You want to hit your marks, allowing time for instruction, assessment, and any adjustments that need to be made. His stable houses roughly 43 occupants at a time, and with staff, made up primarily of riders and grooms, it can be a constant dance. Saddling takes place, while everyone checks their equipment. Handal keeps things “pretty chill,” and he doesn’t use a particularly stern voice when it comes to commands. Again, it’s about a calming culture amid a sea of options … He will hire a new groom, ask about the previous day’s visit by the vet, and move some tags across the board in a matter of minutes. Life in the barn moves pretty fast, if you aren’t paying attention …

The queue of horses that will work follow a particular cyclical motion around the barn’s architecture, and usually to “get loose” are hotwalked along the corridors. That was what was happening from the view at Dunkin’ Donuts on Hempstead Turnpike at 5am … getting ready … It is no different than a human limbering up for a run out their front door. This gives the team a chance to talk one last time about what they want to do once they get to the training track. Handal has all sorts of “speak” that he uses as the exercise riders assemble, and details matter because once you get this train started, it is difficult to stop. Everything has meaning, and there is so much to digest and understand. For instance, keeping the male and female horses away from each other is vastly important, as they could agitate one another. When I asked him what he is looking for in general, he gave a laundry list of pertinent items. “We are always interpreting, watching for how they handle switching leads, how they are using themselves, and engagement … those are all-important,” he said, as he checked the bridle of a runner named for the Drake song, Certified Lover Boy.

Observing first-hand what is such a routine in the lives of these horses and humans, almost out of nowhere appeared Katie Davis. You might recognize her name because she is a well-known rider in the Mid-Atlantic and around the NYRA Circuit. Part of the Davis Family, her father Robbie, was a longtime jockey, agent, excellent story-teller, and legend in the sport. Both of her siblings, Jackie and Dylan, currently ride in New York, and all of them are extremely talented horsepeople. Katie’s connections to racing run deeper, since she is also married to Trevor McCarthy, another member of the colony up here that has enjoyed quite a bit of success. This Davis recently had a child, and is helping Handal with workouts, along with taking care of some horses that are owned by her parents. She has a delightful demeanor, and a “cheerful in all-weathers” look about her. When I asked her how it felt to be back on a horse, she said with a mix of emotion and practicality, “It is always like coming home, and just being around the barn really works with my schedule.” Handal playfully interrupts, teasing her, “Katie, could you get on the horse, please?” It’s time to go …

Once 4 of his runners are saddled, limbered up, it’s time for Handal to head outside. He has them all take a stroll in front of him, just before they head to training. Out by his red Tesla, he looks them over, like one of those judges at the Westminster Kennel Club Show. This is an important moment, and he reminds some of the new Puerto Rican riders to keep their feet tucked in the irons, and their hands firmly on the reins. He is looking at the horse and the rider’s movement for any glitches, any missteps, and he is working all the while in his mind, like a chess player, the next set of moves. “Take her up through the Chad Brown gap,” he tells Katie, “I think she needs to go that way today.” To another he says, “Take them to the 1/4 gap and jog 1.” With those orders issued … we are off.

Fit as can be ... Jackie Davis finishes up her training ride aboard Kemba, while trainer Ray Handal asks a series of questions. The discussion continues back at the barn, as an integral part of workout assessment.
Fit as can be ... Jackie Davis finishes up her training ride aboard Kemba, while trainer Ray Handal asks a series of questions. The discussion continues back at the barn, as an integral part of workout assessment.

The Belmont Training Track isn’t far; in fact, if you used the horse tunnel as the crow flies, it’s quite close. But driving up to the Clocker’s Stand is much more efficient because it gives Handal and Eli the chance to get into place before his squad hits the dirt surface. Eli takes up a filming position on the stand outside, videoing for clients, while Handal heads inside. Walking into the little building is rather like hanging out at a drinking establishment. Pleasantries are exchanged, jokes told, and interactions with other trainers is quite commonplace. The only place off-limits to everyone is upstairs, where “Rich the Clocker” does his business of timing. Handal likes a perch in the corner, where he can see everyone coming onto the track. He offers a running commentary about what he sees, and everyone uses some kind of radio to communicate with the exercise riders, though he uses it sparingly. “I prefer to observe, and strategize … sometimes it is difficult to get people to listen anyway,” he admits. If you have done your spadework ahead of time, then you can spend more time looking at form and less time shouting instructions, he reasons.

Handal steps outside to confer with Eli, and viewing how one of his runners exits the track might be just as important, if not more so, as coming onto it. Now, the assessment begins, and most of this is verbal, for the trainer’s hard drive that is housed inside his brain. Handal is constantly “taking notes,” Eli too … and they both are simultaneously collating seemingly disparate pieces of data. “You never know what nugget of information is going to be useful,” he tells me, “I think you have to open yourself to all sorts of possibilities, and thinking broadly about the workout can really help.” He subscribes to a simplification program that really reduces technical points down to their base elements. What is particularly important is the choice of exercise rider. Handal tells me that some of his pilots are more aggressive than others, and when paired with a horse that really wants “to go,” it can produce a result that is unintended. “You don’t want to go too hard and too fast at any given point because that can really max a runner out,” Handal said. For him, a measured approach can be best. It’s sort of like combining the “Three Bears” porridge mentality of “just right,” with Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. In other words, reducing elements down to a base allows him to focus his attention on what needs adjusting for next time.

Once back at the barn, as unsaddling and saddling take place for the next trench run, Handal is discussing further how the training went. Using some of his “Racetrack Spanish,” he gains an understanding from the rider’s perspective, a place that he couldn’t physically be. Over and over, this exercise is repeated, as runners head to the track … time is of the essence. As the morning moves on, and the darkness gives way, Handal already knows he is going to be short when it comes to experienced riders. He audibles, again with the chess moves, and makes some phone calls. An up-and-coming trainer named Natalia Lynch, called Talie, comes over to lend a hand. She’s currently working on building her own stable, and just the other day at Aqueduct one of hers outlasted a Handal entry in the stretch. “We are going to need more reinforcements,” he tells me, “I think we can get Dylan and Jackie to come by.” Dylan Davis on that Sunday was heading into the final day of the Winter Meet at “The Big A” leading the standings. He is a humble fellow that inherited his father’s style in the irons by utilizing “soft hands” and a “firm grip.” Likewise, Jackie is also quite accomplished, and she is a pro when it comes to tackling this NY Circuit. During this Meet her ROI (return-on-investment) was high, as she got the very best from some long-priced mounts.

The mood around Handal’s barn area continued to be a combination of loose, but focused excitement. Robbie Davis also was on-hand with his wit and wisdom, and everyone was “bowing down” to Dylan as he walked in. Smiles were everywhere because it was quite an achievement to win the title, even though the aspiring dirt bike racer, turned jockey, reminded us that, “Sunday wasn’t over yet.” The day before, in anticipation of visiting Handal’s operation, I caught up with the leading rider-to-be in the Paddock at Aqueduct just before the last contest of the day, and asked him about exercising horses. “For me it is really essential because on a race day it is great to help with focus, my fitness … I won’t go crazy, but working hard, honing my trade, that has really helped with everything I do.” Team Davis quickly joined Handal’s line, and it was one of those social capital moments where horsepeople come together. They were helping this trainer get his workouts in, and he in turn was providing the opportunity to get ready for the day ahead.

Heading back to the Belmont’s “mini-Sandy” were some turf routers that are rounding into shape for the upcoming season. With Jackie on a horse called Kemba, Katie aboard Valmont, and Dylan taking a New York bred filly named Funny How out for a spin, another snag arose. The track was being harrowed, skimmed by a line of tractors that were moving at a turtle’s pace. This created a domino effect, as exercise riders and their mounts had to pack-in at several of the entrances. Handal was concerned that Kemba, a mare by Hard Spun, would get overly agitated. His plan was to have one of his staff walk her through the back of the barn areas, and suddenly appear on the training oval. “It helps to keep her calm, and she works better when she has less time to process where she is heading,” the conditioner told me. Once the great mechanical beasts had “Zamboni-ed” the dirt, it was a cavalry charge forward, as training resumed. As each member exited the track, Handal was there to greet them, asking pointed questions, and tabulating in his head what it all meant. “I thought that for a bunch of turf horses … going around .48 … they really did well,” he mused, “I think my own clocking on the watch told me that they are headed in the right direction.”

Back at the Handal spread, after yet another check of his “frog hair” pasture project, he spoke with each of the Davis riders about how it all went. Dylan reported some good news, as his mount accepted the lead changes with ease, while Katie and Jackie spoke favorably of their trips too. Katie, in particular, had to pass a couple of other runners that were “working in company,” giving a tap to Valmont, and the gelding responded with a revved up move forward. As Katie said with a big smile, “These are athletes and they respond when it comes to the challenge of some healthy competition.” Working a pair of runners together, Handal explained it can be an effective way to either “slow down” or “accelerate” a horse’s progress. Using it in the right situation instills confidence in a budding talent, especially when it comes to the push and pull that can be found in the workout.

The leading rider from the Winter Meet, jockey Dylan Davis takes time to chat with Ray Handal about his breeze. Davis considers exercising horses in the morning to be a good way to maintain fitness before an afternoon of live racing.
The leading rider from the Winter Meet, jockey Dylan Davis takes time to chat with Ray Handal about his breeze. Davis considers exercising horses in the morning to be a good way to maintain fitness before an afternoon of live racing.

Winning the Workout

Is there a way to “win” a horse race during workouts? Certainly … but it’s hard to predict. With every horse, as a trainer you are trying to understand tendencies, document incremental changes, and find that perfect balance between slowing a horse down, or speeding them up. It’s apparent that Ray Handal knows that the connection between horse and exercise rider is a nuanced and intricate moment to understand. With a hands-on approach, he is always looking to find that seam between the current level of fitness, and the next. Balancing a staff, veterinarians, and horses takes an involved organizational structure. One of his closest staff members who he went to school with named Katie Merritt helps him keep the training records and times together. He can access any of them with a couple touches on his smartphone. Other important pieces of data can be found there, like whether one of his horses didn’t finish his feed on a specific day, and that could be connected to adjusting their workout schedule. Again, the little pieces of information become hugely significant.

As mentioned, Handal also places a major emphasis on the health and wellness of his employees, who form the “core” of his operations. He knows this all-to-well … Tragedy struck back in January when Jose Mejia, one of his long-serving traveling assistants based at Turfway Park (a track in Northern Kentucky where he has a string at their Winter Meet), was involved in a catastrophic accident during training. A severe spinal injury has left him paralyzed from the rib cage down, and Handal is trying to do everything he can to support him. A GoFundMe page has been set up to raise money for stem cell therapy, and it’s unknown whether he will be able to ever walk again. The challenges of the training track are real, and this situation speaks to the fact, as Handal puts it, “That winning isn’t everything.”

With Mejia not far from his thoughts, after Sunday’s workouts were complete, it was time for Handal to shift gears for the afternoon. The closing of the Aqueduct Winter Meet had arrived. The Davis pair would be there (both had mounts in the 1st race), and so would Handal’s regular rider, Jalon Samuel. He is a young man that earned his stripes as an apprentice jockey, also called a “Bug Boy,” and he works with the trainer quite frequently. In the afternoon feature, he saddled Salsa a Parte, a homebred owned by Old Tavern Farm. The filly’s progression fitness-wise has totally surprised the conditioner, and that can happen sometimes. Down in the Paddock just before the race, Handal exhibits some of that New York swag, as he shoots the breeze with NYRA analyst Maggie Woffendale, and greets the owner’s group that has assembled. Up against a short-priced favorite, Yo Cuz, that is dropping in class, Handal walks alongside Samuel with his arm around him giving support. Just competing in this race, with a horse that is only making her 2nd career start, is something. After she finished 5th out of 6 runners, I asked the trainer what he thought, channeling some of the “speak” from the morning. “We were up against it,” he admitted with a grin, “I think we will get’ em next time.”

The heart of a horse’s development in racing isn’t made in competition on a Saturday. Not by a longshot … Instead, it cycles through and comes to fruition in those haunting breezeways at the barn around 5am, and on the social network of the training surface at 7:15. It's not about times scrawled across the bottom of a runner's form; nor can you always tell from a "report" sold by a service. Something deeper is afoot ... The humans who sleepily wipe their eyes and drain a hot tankard of coffee watch carefully, trying to unearth the talent from within. Some things, we just cannot know. Handal’s best laid plans were peppered with intent, but the outcome is never quite where the initial mark is set. The stable culture of his California cool and New York swag, merged with passion, sweat, and patience, form a success story that is only beginning. As he pointed his hushed Tesla towards the gate to exit Belmont he turned and said, “What a morning, that didn’t go exactly as planned.” It is never going to be easy … Ray Handal knows this … and that only fuels the desire to keep going … in an effort to “win” the workout. After all, there are Thoroughbreds beyond that fence at Belmont Park … ready for the next morning of conditioning.

Where it pays off ... Trainer Ray Handal offers a kind word to jockey Jalon Samuel just before a leg up in the Aqueduct Paddock before the feature on Sunday ... the final day of the Winter Meet. Samuel regularly takes Handal's mounts, and the pair have formed a strong bond.
Where it pays off ... Trainer Ray Handal offers a kind word to jockey Jalon Samuel just before a leg up in the Aqueduct Paddock before the feature on Sunday ... the final day of the Winter Meet. Samuel regularly takes Handal's mounts, and the pair have formed a strong bond.
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