Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Carrying A ‘Banner’ For The Backstretch Melting Pot

by | 01.20.2016 | 3:30pm
Groom Ronald Lobai sports an eye-catching t-shirt as he guides a victorious Awesome Banner after the Hutcheson

The racetrack has a way of bringing people together across cultures and across miles.

“We've got just about every country in America on the backside. That's the racetrack,” said Stanley Gold.

Gold, trainer of Grade 3 Hutcheson Stakes winner Awesome Banner, should know all about the draw of the racetrack—he logged thousands of miles on the road before settling on Gulfstream Park in South Florida. Gold graduated from Dickinson University in New Jersey in 1969 with a degree in accounting. He didn't go to school to become an accountant, he said; he sort of backed into it. Before he knew it, Gold found himself on the conveyor belt that led through college and to a desk job at the firm Arthur Young and Co. in New York City. After giving it some thought, Gold realized he wasn't prepared for a lifetime of crunching numbers.

“My mind would start drifting to other places, and you can't deal with numbers like that,” he said. “I guess I wasn't cut out to do it. I've joked around saying if I'd stayed at that it would be a different scenario — I'd have a house, two children, two cars. Times haven't always been good and they haven't always been bad, but I don't look back.”

Gold took a leave of absence from the job to travel and never returned. He spent months hitchhiking 20,000 miles around the country satisfying what his parents called his “wanderlust.”

When he needed money, he worked, and that's how he ended up at the racetrack, walking hots for $70 a week. Gold enjoyed the job and worked his way up to being a groom in the early 1970s and eventually became an assistant trainer for future Hall of Famer Warren A. “Jimmy” Croll.

Gold took out his own trainer's license in 1978, keeping a horse or two of his own while working as an assistant for others before making the move to Florida when he tired of the cold Northeast winters.

Since about 2005, Gold's entire string of horses (about 20 these days) has come from Jacks or Better Farm, including Awesome Banner. Even with a small operation, he has had success, winning several dozen stakes for the Florida farm in both state-bred and graded stakes contests.

“When I came to the racetrack, I'd never even sat on a pony,” he said. “I had no idea that years later I'd be doing this for a career.”

Awesome Banner (by Awesome of Course, also the sire of Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner and Gold trainee Awesome Feather) looks to be the operation's next star, turning heads in his maiden debut when he set a track record (51.07) in a four-and-a-half furlong maiden special weight at Gulfstream last June. The colt came up with a knee chip two weeks later and got seven months off.

“He picked up right where he left off,” said Gold. “As a 2-year-old, he just had a look about him. He acted like he'd been around before. As time went on, he's continued to look that way.”

Gold: "Times haven't always been good and they haven't always been bad, but I don't look back."

Gold: “Times haven't always been good and they haven't always been bad, but I don't look back.”

There was another person who suspected even before Awesome Banner's first start that he might be something special. The colt's groom, Ronald Lobai, has also logged a lot of miles in his path to the racetrack. He originally hails from Trinidad and came to the track because he has an uncle who trains racehorses. Although he has worked odd jobs in construction and other endeavors, the track always calls him home.

“I try other stuff and I always come back to the horses,” said Lobai. “I don't know what it is. Looking at them galloping in the morning, the way they cover the track…it's something magical to me. I love being around them. You learn so much. Each horse has their own personality.”

Lobai wears his job with pride — pride that manifested in a t-shirt he sported on the way back to the barn after the Hutcheson which read “Groom: Because Bad Ass Miracle Worker Is Not An Official Job Title.” The shirt was a Christmas present, and Lobai admits it's hard not to think of it as a good luck charm since Awesome Banner won the race.

Lobai has worked for Gold six or seven years, caring for the shedrow's top horses, including Jackson Bend, Fort Loudon, C. Zee, and Grande Shores — the latter being his favorite (though he does still miss Jackson Bend). He gets to know his horses inside and out, patiently correcting naughty behaviors and learning where they like their heads or necks rubbed. Awesome Banner's relaxation routine is a good forehead scratch, though Lobai said most of the time, the horse is all business, much like Jackson Bend was.

“He has swag,” Lobai said of Awesome Banner, noting the colt already poses for pictures. “He does everything easy, he makes everything look easy.”

Lobai admits he was nervous for the Hutcheson, like he is for all the races his horses enter. There's the groom's bonus at stake if the horse wins, of course, but for Lobai it's an emotional, personal experience, too.

“I want to get him ready, get him to the paddock, and then it's in the jock's hands,” said Lobai. “The horses I groom, I treat them like my kids. I whistle at them, they come to the front of the stall. After a while, they grow on you.”

Gold hesitates to project too far into the future; the Swale is the next goal for Awesome Banner, and while he admits to some Kentucky Derby dreaming, he's taking things one race at a time.

“I try not to get too far ahead of myself,” he said. “You stay prepared, but you don't think about how you're going to play in the Super Bowl if you haven't made it through the playoffs.”

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