Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: At Big Fresno Fair horse racing, there’s plenty of action away from the track

Big Fresno Fair: Meet Racing Secretary Tom Doutrich

Tom Doutrich, Racing Secretary for California Authority of Racing Fairs, has a big job but a small office at The Big Fresno Fair. Go inside the control center for racing at the fair and hear Doutrich talk about "Boomer's House."
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Tom Doutrich, Racing Secretary for California Authority of Racing Fairs, has a big job but a small office at The Big Fresno Fair. Go inside the control center for racing at the fair and hear Doutrich talk about "Boomer's House."

Horse racing at The Big Fresno Fair begins long before post time of the first race.

Hours and hours before, and in total darkness.

It begins a few minutes before 6 a.m., when Melody Truitt exits the fifth wheel parked inside the fairground gate she lives in all summer with her husband, Danny.

The racetrack is deserted as Truitt walks along the path outside turn 1 that leads to the Brian I. Tatarian Grandstand, but she knows it won’t be that way for long.

The racetrack is deserted as Melody Truitt walks along the path outside turn 1 that leads to the Brian I. Tatarian Grandstand, but she knows it won’t be that way for long.

“If it were still daylight, I’d be here before 6,” Truitt says. “Since it’s still dark I mosey over right at 6.”

As the track’s clocker, Truitt has to be in her press box seat in case a trainer or owner calls with a request to time a morning workout. It’s her job to time each workout and send those times to Equibase for inclusion in the Daily Racing Form.

Truitt works for CARF (California Authority of Racing Fairs), the firm hired by The Big Fresno Fair and other California fairs to run their horse racing operations. She and her husband live in Phoenix but have been on the road since June. Fresno is the last stop.

“This fair here is the best on the circuit as far as the actual fair and everything, but I’m ready to go home,” she says with a weary smile.

Truitt is alone in the cluttered press box. On the counter in front of her is a half-open laptop. Binoculars and a digital stopwatch sit next to the computer, within easy reach of her right hand. For now, the phones (her cell and the track’s hard line) are quiet.

It’s still pretty dark at 6:30, but a few four-legged figures and their riders can be seen on the track. They’re all moving slowly. Just loping about.

“It’s pretty quiet this morning,” Truitt says. “It’ll probably pick up after the (7:30-8 a.m.) break.”

There’s a lot that goes into putting on a horse race. You’d be surprised how much.

Melody Truitt, clocker at The Big Fresno Fair

From her east-facing perch high up in the grandstand, Truitt’s view spans not only the racetrack but the mountains beyond. Slowly but surely, at 7:10 a.m., the sun emerges from behind the Sierra and creates a beautiful but blinding glow.

The sightlines are made even more difficult by trees growing along the backstretch. Not to mention the Ferris wheel and other carnival rides on the infield. Truitt needs to monitor every horse on the track, which isn’t easy to do when some parts are obscured.

“It’s pretty,” she says, “but it’s tough to work up here because the sun’s in your eyes and the horses are hard to see on the backside.”

The horses don’t wear numbers, so Truitt has to know them by sight. Some she identifies by color or markings. Others, she relies on the shape of the saddle or color of the saddle blanket. By their position on the horse she recognizes certain riders.

The horses don’t wear numbers, so Truitt has to know them by sight. Some she identifies by color or markings. Others, she relies on the shape of the saddle or color of the saddle blanket.

As Truitt explains this to a rare visitor at this hour, a chestnut gallops down the home stretch. She has been timing even though the phone hasn’t rung.

A few minutes later, it does.

“Clocker,” Truitt answers, before listening to the voice on the other end.

“I caught her at the quarter,” she replies. “That was it.”

Truitt hangs up and says in disbelief, “They call after they already worked?”

Thankfully, that isn’t the norm. By the time morning workouts are over Truitt times eight horses at either four or five furlongs. She logs each time into her laptop. In hours, they’ll be available to every handicapper in the country.

Because Truitt sees every horse on the circuit, few people around the track know more about their characteristics. And occasionally some trainer or owner will attempt to pry her for inside knowledge.

“I don’t volunteer a lot,” she says. “Anyone can look at a worksheet. If they want to know how a horse goes, they should be out here watching for themselves.”

The agents

Among the trainers, grooms and stablehands hanging around the backside of the racetrack (technically the south side of Butler Avenue and off-limits to fair goers), Fernando Navarro stands out.

That’s because Navarro is wearing a bright yellow Prada polo, white pants and leather slip-ons. His accessories include a leather-strapped watch and a pair of round aviator shades with dark brown lenses.

Navarro is an agent. Specifically, he’s the agent for two of the leading jockeys at The Big Fresno Fair: Silvio Amador and Frank Alvarado.

I don’t want my jocks riding too many 20-to-1 shots. I try to stay off those horses.

Fernando Navarro, jockey agent

“I try to get my jocks on the best horses possible,” Navarro says. “Every day it’s pretty hard, but I have two good jockeys and they’re both doing good.”

Amador and Alvarado are, in fact, doing “good.” Following the first week of racing, both have won three races, though the earnings won by Amador’s mounts ($66,800) far exceed Alvarado’s ($26,225).

Unlike the normal bettor, jockeys don’t win anything for place or show. Only if their horse ends up in the winner’s circle.

Unlike the normal bettor, jockeys don’t win anything for place or show. Only if their horse ends up in the winner’s circle.

Also unlike the normal bettor, jockeys take home the same amount if they win on a favorite or the longest of long shots.

Says Navarro: “If the horse is a 1 to 5 or a 50 to 1, it doesn’t matter to us.”

How earnings are divided among owner, jockey and agent is standard throughout the industry.

For example, the winner of Sunday’s $100,000 Harris Ranch Stakes was a horse named Raised a Secret. The owner, Rodney Orr, receives 60 percent of that, in this case $60,000.

The winning jockey, Juan Hernandez, gets 10 percent of the owner’s cut, $6,000. The agent then gets 25 percent of the jockey’s cut, $1,500.

“When they don’t win, we don’t make money,” Ron Freitas says.

Freitas knows this all too well. His client, Richardo Gonzalez, was aboard Richard’s Boy in Sunday’s $100,000 stakes – the horse that placed.

It’s all part of the life of an agent. Freitas, based at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, has been one for 17 years.

In Fresno, Freitas is a man in high demand among trainers and owners because last year Gonzalez won more races than any jockey at the fair. Even more than Russell Baze, the all-time winningest jockey in history.

“We get offered a lot of horses, and it’s my job to pick which is best,” Freitas says. “Sometimes I get offered four or five horses for the same race.”

It’s a real good season if you win two out of 10. We have to win to make money.

Ron Freitas, jockey agent

Gonzalez made 19 starts during the fair’s first week and went off as the favorite in nine. He won twice ($46,082 in earnings) and currently sits well behind Kyle Frey’s eight wins and Baze’s seven with four days of racing left.

Freitas’ $691.23 cut will cover his expenses, but not a whole lot more. He has a family back in the Bay Area.

“It’s a real good season if you win two out of 10,” Freitas says. “We have to win to make money.”

The racing secretary

In horse racing, the jockeying for position starts days before the actual race. And it doesn’t start on the track, but in a small office with clipboards hanging from the walls and a duct-taped extension cord running through a window.

During the fair, this is the domain of racing secretary Tom Doutrich. Everyone knows him by his childhood nickname: Bomber.

The racing secretary has a bushel of responsibilities. It’s his job to plan the schedule and determine the purse for each race. He compiles the list of entries and arranges races between horses of equal experience and ability. He reviews each horse’s paperwork. He publishes the race program and reports results.

“We basically make sure people follow the rules and it isn’t like the wild, wild West,” says Doutrich, who also works for CARF.

We basically make sure people follow the rules and it isn’t like the wild, wild West.

Tom Doutrich, racing secretary for The Big Fresno Fair

Things are never crazier than during the hours before each day’s racing card is finalized, usually 72 hours in advance. Doutrich’s cellphone never stops vibrating with calls from people in the industry seeking information.

Because trainers, owners and agents are competing against each other, the list of entries is kept confidential. Doutrich tells them how many horses are signed up for each race, just not which ones.

But, still, they try.

“I have people coming at me from all angles, and it gets heated at times,” Doutrich says. “I’m the bad guy here. That’s kind of how it is.”

On a clipboard, Doutrich keeps a list of 20 potential races. Some have six or seven tick marks beside them, each signifying an entry; others have one or two. Only eight or nine races will be run each day. It’s up to him to decide which.

“I need numbers,” Doutrich tells a trainer while fiddling with his eyeglasses until they rest askew on his nose. “X16 has five (horses). Just one more and it’ll go.”

The next trainer who calls has evidently entered his horse in a mile-long race by mistake. That kind of switch is ultimately up to the stewards, but Doutrich says he’ll try to help.

Yet another calls and wants to enter his horse, just not against a full field. (“I’ll get you in a better spot. X7 is much easier.”)

“Sometimes they’ll say, ‘If I can’t get Russell Baze, I don’t want to run,’ ” Doutrich says. “That’s not great for me.”

Sometimes they’ll say, ‘If I can’t get Russell Baze, I don’t want to run.’ That’s not great for me.

Tom Doutrich

The racing secretary’s ultimate responsibility is putting together an attractive card that will entice the betting public to wager.

Because if they don’t, well, Doutrich would be in considerable trouble.

“We basically put up a big nut that hasn’t been generated yet,” he says. “It’s very tricky that if people don’t show up and bet, we’re really in the wringer.”

They do, of course, because horse racing is one of the fair’s biggest attractions. Even if much of the action happens away from the track.

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