It's been 30 years since Steven Crist wrote in the New York Times that Thoroughbred trainer Oscar Barrera was running the “best magic show in town.” Barrera was doing things no other trainers dared try, astonishing bettors and fellow horsemen during a remarkable run that took New York horse racing by storm.
When Barrera died in April 1991 after suffering a heart attack at the age of 63, the lead to his Daily Racing Form obituary, written by Fran LaBelle, said: “Oscar Barrera, the miracle man, is dead.”
Mark Hopkins would write in DRF that Barrera “reduced the claiming game to the theater of the absurd.”
Barrera would claim a horse from an early race on a Wednesday and, if the entry box for Friday was still open, might run it back two days later for a higher claiming price – often winning. He would run that same horse again in another three or four days. And again. And again. Barrera once won six races in a single month with the same horse.
“It is doubtful that any trainer, in any country, at any time in the history of the thoroughbred species has performed feats to equal Barrera's,” Andy Beyer wrote in the Washington Post. “Depending on whether he accomplished them with horsemanship or with chemistry, he either deserved to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame or banished from the sport.”
Whatever Barrera was doing with his horses, whether legal or illegal, he was the talk of racing over a four-year period in the 1980s when he was New York's leading trainer by wins. After an undistinguished 12 years when he was best known as the younger brother of Hall of Famer Laz Barrera, Oscar burst onto the scene in 1983 with 95 wins, tripling his output from the previous year. He then dominated New York's claiming ranks until 1987.
The following year, the magic act disappeared. Barrera had a horse test positive for two Class 4 drugs (prednisone and prednisolone, corticosteroids that had a 24-hour withdrawal time) and on May 17, 1988, he began serving a 45-day suspension. When he came back in late July, he saddled 130 starters before winning another race. The losing streak lasted until Jan. 23, 1989.
Barrera won 32 races in 1988, 39 in ‘89 and 28 in '90 – a far cry from his win totals of just a few years earlier. When he died in 1991, he was on an 0-for-31 run and had won only two of his previous 90 starts.
In his best year, 1984, Barrera won 146 races from 726 starts, and his stable's earnings totaled $2,339,932.
His winning percentages were low by today's standards, never going above 21 percent. But some of Barrera's individual moves were simply amazing.
Chiming Jet, a Tri Jet mare who earlier raced for breeder Fred Hooper, started five times in 22 days, winning twice, finishing second once and third once.
Even better was Teriyaki Stake, a $20,000 Barrera claim that won six consecutive races, all of them in March of 1986: $22,500 claiming races on March 2 and 10; a $35,000 claiming race March 13; a $45,000 claiming race March 21; an allowance race on March 25, and a $47,500 claimer March 31.
The most famous of all was Shifty Sheik, a $35,000 claim in 1984 who won three straight in 13 days for Barrera, then took 10 days off before jumping into Grade 1 company and almost beating champion Slew o' Gold in the Woodward Stakes.
A son of Damascus, Shifty Sheik was making his 40th lifetime start the day Barrera claimed him. He'd won seven races over four years but had lost seven in a row until the magic act arrived. In his first start for Barrera, Shifty Sheik won by 12 3⁄4 lengths and came within two-fifths of a second off the track record.
“Everyone on the race track suspects that Barrera is feeding his horses something other than hay, oats and water, but no one can prove a thing,” Crist wrote in the New York Times. “The chemists and the investigators have looked and looked, but Barrera's horses keep coming up clean on drug tests. His potion is either legal or undetectable, and he insists it is simply a matter of superior horsemanship. Like any magician, he will not reveal his secrets.”
When asked about Shifty Sheik's sudden improvement, Barrera was quoted in that same article as saying (keeping a straight face), “I put blinkers on him.”
When Barrera died, Andy Beyer wrote in the Washington Post that “Oscar Barrera was laid to rest Monday in a cemetery not far from Belmont Park, and with him was buried the greatest secret in American racing.”
Racing may have some modern miracle workers with winning percentages upwards of 40 percent, but Oscar Barrera was the original.
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