About a decade ago, after Seek Gold catapulted trainer Ron Moquett into the national consciousness, he scrawled down a list of races he wanted to win. Some, like the Travers, were obvious. Others (the Vanderbilt, the Count Fleet, the deFrancis) made his list because of their history. The list hangs on a wall in his office and last weekend, Whitmore gave Moquett the opportunity to cross off one more by winning the Grade 1 Forego. The 5-year-old gelding owned by Robert LaPenta, Moquett, and Head of Plains Partners closed to a decisive win under Ricardo Santana Jr. at odds of 8-1.
“For me, being a fan of horse racing first and foremost, I'm in this game not because I was born into it, but because I want to be here. The love for the sport and the game is the reason I'm here,” Moquett told NYRA's media team Sunday morning. “To win on that kind of day, with a race that has this much history on Travers Day in front of all those people who love horse racing, it was a big deal for me.”
Moquett has traveled many miles to get to the winner's circle after a Saratoga Grade 1, and he likes to say horses have carried him the whole way.
They've plucked him from a tiny town in Oklahoma, rattled him on vans through Arkansas, sent him flying to Miami, San Diego, New York. They've also lifted him from a hospital bed and put him back on his feet.
While climbing a set of stairs at his Oaklawn base last winter, Moquett was on the phone with his wife and assistant Laura when she noticed something strange.
“My wife said, 'Are you running?' and I said, 'No,' and she said, 'So why are you out of breath?'” Moquett recalled. “And I said, 'I don't know.'”
One of the exercise riders in the Moquett barn is an emergency room technician and suggested he get to a hospital. Although his vital signs were normal, his blood oxygen kept dropping. Before Moquett knew it, he was in isolation at the hospital as doctors tried to figure out whether he had pneumonia or tuberculosis. Tests came back negative for both. They came back negative for everything, but still Moquett struggled to breathe. He had surgery to put a tube in his lung. After a battery of tests and drugs, he got an answer.
“It was a disease called sarcoidosis, which is rare. A lot of people die of 'pneumonia' but it was actually sarcoidosis. Everything can be going good, and then you catch a virus, and you're done,” he said, leaning on the outside rail at Saratoga one August morning.
Sarcoidosis is an autoimmune disorder causing inflammation in several parts of the body, most commonly the lungs. Like many autoimmune disorders, it can impact sufferers' ability to withstand infection – a particularly complex problem for horse trainers.
“What people don't realize is there's like 30 different types of flus and you may have a little bit of antibody built up to one, but then somebody comes from Florida and they have a new one. And what is a racetrack? We call it a 'meet' because everybody comes in from all over,” said Moquett.
Moquett was in the hospital for 45 days as doctors tried to get the disease under control, and even once released they cautioned him against too much activity or exposure to other people. Like any horse person, though, he found a way to keep up with his barn anyway. The Moquett home in Hot Springs, Ark., adjoins the racetrack, so he climbed into his pick-up truck each morning and sat in the driveway, watching the horses gallop by. People walked over from the backside to check on him and drop off soup.
Despite the setback, Moquett's stable is on track to have a comparable season to 2017, when he hit a personal best for stable earnings at $3.4 million. He credits his assistants, particularly Laura, Ronny Werner, Greta Kuntzweiler, and Hannah Boyle (all of whom, he says, could have their own shed rows if they chose) with keeping the stable going.
Rather than leaving him feeling disconnected, the buzz of the barn drew Moquett back. By the time summer came, his doctors were able to take him off some of the medications he said kept him in a fog.
“Luckily my job is one that keeps you busy and I use that as a positive. Instead of sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I kept busy,” he said.
By the start of Saratoga, Moquett was back in the barn and on the rail. He still has to make sacrifices – he avoids the social element of Saratoga, passing up dinners and nights out in order to keep up his energy for the barn. He cautions he's not out of the woods – sarcoidosis is something that can be managed though not cured – but it seems for him, the feel of horsehair and sounds of hoofbeats are restorative.
Horses have always had a way of pulling Moquett through. Born on the border between Oklahoma and Arkansas, Moquett's childhood was a tumultuous one. His mother died when he was four years old, and his brothers were shifted from place to place in foster homes. He had a complicated relationship with people but animals, whether pets or farm animals, were there waiting for him each morning no matter what. He found peace on the backstretch at Murry Spur, a bush track in Spiral, Okla.
“I used horses as therapy and horses as family. When I realized this was a sport I was like 'Are you kidding me? I can do this for a living?'” he remembered. “I had no family members in horse racing. No uncles, no aunts, anything. All I had was a love for the sport. I was just a kid that every summer from the time I was 15 that would take a bus trip to a racetrack and volunteer to work for nothing. Because I loved it. And I loved horses.”
The bush tracks provided Moquett a complete education. Horsemen did everything for themselves there – riding, ponying, starting, grooming, hotwalking. When they were done at the track, most people had to haul bags of feed or cut and bale hay nearby. There was always a need for a teenager eager to learn because there weren't enough people to carry the load. Moquett tried galloping (“I sucked at it”) and sharpened his eye for what makes a happy horse – and what makes a good one.
When he took out his first pari-mutuel license at Blue Ribbon Downs, he was amazed – there were grooms whose only job was to groom three horses. Bandages were on by 9 a.m. Horses looked sleek and happy. That was the world he ultimately wanted to work in, but he started with whatever he could get. Moquett's first win came with an Appaloosa named Sparkling Bull.
“The purse was $1,000 and that was the first week they'd raised them,” he remembered. “I thought, 'A $1,000 maiden special weight? I'll never have another poor day!'”
Even with such riches on the line at Blue Ribbon, the early days weren't easy. Moquett slept in tack rooms when he had to. He remembers participating in 'strong man fights' as part of backstretch evening entertainment (think a less-polished version of the scraps depicted in the movie 'Seabiscuit'), going in swinging so he could pay his horses' feed bill.
“It was weird to me when someone would say, 'I've got to get up to go take care of horses.' You don't got to, you get to,” he said, looking back. “This is an opportunity, and you can't blame someone for not seeing it if they didn't have to go through that. But I have gone through it. I have slept in tack rooms. I have ridden in the back of the trailers to the racetracks and volunteered to work just so I could go to the races. So to be someplace like Saratoga or Keeneland or Oaklawn or Churchill, it's huge to me. It's something I definitely do not take for granted.”
Moquett's ascent to Saratoga was a slow one. He was a largely regional conditioner in his early years, finding success bringing new owners to racing under his Southern Springs Stable Banner. Then, in 2006, he shocked the Grade 1 Stephen Foster field with 91-1 shot Seek Gold and began gaining momentum in graded stakes. Gentlemen's Bet hit the board in the G1 Alfred Vanderbilt Handicap and took him to the 2013 Breeders' Cup Sprint, where he was third. Since then, Whitmore (millionaire and G2 Phoenix winner) and Far Right (graded winner and runner-up to American Pharoah in the G1 Arkansas Derby) have proven Moquett belongs there.
It seems likely that if he had chosen to, Moquett could have built a successful regional operation in the Oklahoma/Arkansas circuit that made him. He isn't interested in that. His focus now is on preparing horses for the high-money meets like Saratoga and Keeneland where the purses are good and the competition is tough. Saratoga in particular has provided a challenge, though after several summers here he's starting to get the hang of it. The pursuit of tougher competition, of stakes trophies sometimes means taking risks that don't pan out. If his win percentage takes a hit, Moquett reasons, so be it. Meet titles are for the season, but graded stakes – those go in the history books.
“No offense but if I thought that was the best I could ever do, be the leading trainer at a regional track, I'm not sure I could get up as early,” he said. “I want to do something that makes people ask my grandkids, 'Your grandpa won that race? We could look that up?' That's what I want to see.
“At the end of the day, no one knows. At the end of the day, a high win percentage doesn't make a stallion. You didn't push yourself. Go somewhere else. Go somewhere where you can't be leading trainer because there's a lot of guys just as good, working just as hard as you are. That's what I think.”
What's his next target on that list he started ten years ago? Moquett is a little vague – after all, it's early to be planning too earnestly for next spring.
“The last six years I decided I wanted to win the Kentucky Derby. Before that I just wanted to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint,” he joked. “But if that's what you want to do, you have to win some of the preps.”
Moquett looks over the Saratoga paddock contemplatively as he waits for his next set to come over for morning training.
“What's funny is if I'm standing at Blue Ribbon Downs saying this, everybody would say 'You've won the Southwest, you've run second to American Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby, and you've been to the Derby twice.' But there's nobody here who can't say they've done that.”
It's a long way from Blue Ribbon Downs.
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