Goodbye, Carlos Figueroa

carlos-fig

I never knew Carlos, but knew of him and saw him several times at NE tracks. What a subject he would have been for “stories” – here is his obituary from The Boston Globe, he should be remembered.  Did you know him? 

THE BOSTON GLOBE, FEB 1 2017

Mr. Figueroa came to represent the bygone era of the fading thoroughbred racing world.

By J.M. Lawrence Globe Correspondent  February 01, 2017

Wearing his Panama hats, flowered shirts, and pencil thin mustache, wise-cracking horse trainer Carlos Figueroa became a legend at area racetracks and fairs where thoroughbreds once raced in the shadows of Ferris wheels.

Nicknamed the “King of the Fairs,” Mr. Figueroa made a modest living since the 1950s turning bargain basement horses into competitors who raced at Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park. He came to represent a bygone era in thoroughbred racing that he always dreamed would return.

“I’m never retiring,” Mr. Figueroa told the Globe in 2004, as the future of racing dimmed in the region, and he quipped: “If I have to, I’ll get my brothers Smith & Wesson and go to a bank.”

During some years, friends said, he was lucky if he could scrape together enough to pay the feed bill, while some people he introduced to the sport long ago became millionaires. Mr. Figueroa died Jan. 3 in his Salem, N.H., home from complications of strokes and pneumonia. He was 88.

“Everyone at the races knew Carlos and everyone liked him. He always put a smile on your face,” said John Morrissey, who was racing secretary at Suffolk Downs. “If you were having a bad day, before you knew it, he would have you laughing.”

Mr. Figueroa grew up poor in Puerto Rico. As the oldest of seven children who were raised by a single mother outside San Juan, he made a few dollars walking horses at the local track. He told friends he awoke some nights with a rat nibbling on his toes. He dropped out of high school and left for New York racetracks at age 18.

His friend Michael Blowen, a former Boston Globe movie critic and horse lover who started volunteering in the barns at Suffolk in the 1980s, said Mr. Figueroa accepted him as an apprentice once he learned the motto of what Blowen and friends affectionately called Figueroa University.

“Name three things to survive in the back field,” Mr. Figueroa quizzed his proteges. “Lie, cheat, and steal.” That became the raucous motto of Figueroa University, according to Blowen.

Blowen later launched Old Friends, an organization devoted to keeping retired race horses out of slaughterhouses. He found himself wheeling and dealing with Mr. Figueroa in a bid to rescue a horse with a bad knee named Wedding Punch.

“You’ve learned too good,” Mr. Figueroa told him after the negotiation was done. Wedding Punch went off to retirement in Kentucky. Old Friends now has 168 horses, including three Kentucky Derby winners, who live at its retirement farms.

In 1999, Mr. Figueroa battled to protect his reputation when one of his horses tested positive for cocaine at Suffolk Downs. The Massachusetts Racing Commission suspended him for 90 days, but later trimmed the punishment to 45, citing his long clean record. Members said they doubted Figueroa was involved in the doping, but under track rules, the trainer is always held responsible.

“I know how to train horses. I don’t need cocaine to make horses run,” Mr. Figueroa told the commission. “I’m a good horse trainer. Cocaine is no good to me. Horses run on good food, a good trainer, and a good jockey.”

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 1997

Mr. Figueroa started working with horses in the 1950s.

Blowen attested to Mr. Figueroa’s love of horses. “I never saw him do one thing illegal. I never saw him hit a horse, or mistreat a horse,” he said.

In the 1990s, Mr. Figueroa ran for the New Hampshire House of Representatives in a bid to push for a racino — a combined racetrack and casino — at Rockingham Park. He lost. Racing at Rockingham ended in 2009. Regularly scheduled live racing at Suffolk ended in 2014.

He was full of stories about his racing life, though most elude verification. He liked to talk about one horse’s spectacular run at the fairs in 1963. Shannon’s Hope won five races in six days, spurring an investigation by animal welfare officials, he said.

Mr. Figueroa assured them Shannon’s Hope ran only short distances. By contrast, he told them, a Revolutionary War patriot named Paul Revere, who was a much heavier jockey, rode his horse “over cobblestones through the woods from Boston to Lexington” in a single night.

“He probably hit the horse with his damn lantern. I tell them the only ones that get tired are the owners and trainers – tired from being broke all the time,” Mr. Figueroa told the Globe in 1982.

One of Mr. Figueroa’s secrets to rehabilitating horses was his technique for massaging their legs back into racing form, according to his wife, Pearl. “You’d think he was a doctor for horses’ legs,” she said.

They met in the late 1960s on the fair circuit when Pearl, whose last name then was Kehl, tended bar at Berkshire Downs near Pittsfield.

She didn’t like him at first because he spent too much time drinking. But then she saw the handsome trainer at another fair. “He just was so nice and that started it,” she said. They were married 48 years, and though Mr. Figueroa had no biological children, they raised six children who needed homes, she said.

“He was a hard worker. He never missed a day going to the track. Even when he was sick, he still went up there,” Pearl said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Figueroa leaves several siblings; his stepsons Walter Anderson of Millis and Fred Williams of El Paso; and 14 grandchildren.

A gathering for friends and family was held in Salem, N.H.

According to racing records from 1976 to his retirement in 2010, Mr. Figueroa had 846 wins from 9,841 starts. His horses during those years earned an average of $425 per start.

In 2001, Mr. Figueroa hit a losing streak that was bad enough to make the Guinness Book of World Records, he told friends. He lost 195 races in a row.

Two year later, his luck changed with a horse named Call Me Mr. Vain. The horse won 11 times. In what is known as a claiming race, Call Me Mr. Vain was purchased out from under Mr. Figueroa for a mere $4,000 before winning the 11th race. “It was a cheap horse but a good horse,” Mr. Figueroa said.

Friends raised the money for Mr. Figueroa’s funeral costs. At the wake, he was laid out wearing one of his flowered shirts and his Panama hat. “There’s nobody around like Carlos anymore,” Blowen said. “He really did mark the end of an era.”

____________________________________________________________

A “Twitter” friend of mine sent me this picture of his father, Carlos Grullon.  Carlos Grullon was a jockey who rode the circuits at Rockingham, Suffolk, Penn National and more.  Carlos Figueroa was one of the first trainers to give him a break when he first started riding … here he is: Carlos Grullon, in the Winner’s Circle with one of Figueroa’s horses, July 28, 1988 at Rockingham Park!

grullon-jock-for-fig

~ Did you know Carlos Figueroa?  I’d happily publish your pictures or stories. ~

 


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