Remembering ‘Miracle Man’ Trainer Oscar Barrera

by | 03.03.2014 | 3:38pm
Trainer Oscar Barrera dominated New York racing over a four-year period in the 1980's (photo: Bob Coglianese)

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.

  • Ron

    I was a high school kid in queens in 1983 and I witnessd mamy a miracle by Oscar that year.I cashed on a few, got burned by some, but it will go down as my favorite year in racing.

  • Tinky

    Secret? Please. Talk to certain vets who were/are around NY racing and the “magic” will be revealed for what it (obviously) was.

    • betterthannothing

      So, what was Oscar magic? He is dead and no one would know who said what!

    • Black Helen

      Those “Super Trainers” know, they are using it still.

      All super, but the poor horse, who is a innocent victim.

    • greg

      enlighten us all knowing one

  • betterthannothing

    “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. ”

    “Depending on whether he accomplished them with horsemanship or with chemistry,”

    Come on! There is no way that horsemanship can turn a horse into a winner in two days then get horses to keep on going and going. If Oscar’s horsemanship was that superior, he would have turned most of his claimers into Graded stakes winners in two weeks. The fact that test labs didn’t find dope or illegal painkillers does not mean that he didn’t block and hop his horses like no one else did at the time wherever he was racing. Laz didn’t have the greatest reputation either although a big horse, big owners, money and fame tend to whitewash a lot of things. He was obviously smarter and did not push the envelop as far as Oscar did.

    • Bill Keating

      Those remarks about Hall of Fame trainer Laz Barrera verge on slander. You have to realize that you can’t publish unproven allegations about people as fact, even if you are on the Internet. Laz enriched New York racing a lot in those years in the 70s and 80s when he would bring his string of horses to Saratoga in the summer and then followed the racing down to Belmont in the fall.
      As for Oscar, I left the New York racing scene around 1984 so I wasn’t around for his glory years. Not that I hadn’t experienced a lot of Oscar moments. The year that he raced a horse on the day before Christmas and again on the day after. Lucky for the horse that Christmas is a holiday.
      When I returned quite a few years ago I expected that whatever Oscar had been doing would have been revealed. After all, after his death, there must have been others in the know. But I see that it remains a secret.

  • betterthannothing

    Why was Oscar’s horses not put under constant surveillance and substancecontrol? Isn’t investing in security and integrity more important than the cost to horsemen, riders and horses, loss of reputation and gambling due to the lack of integrity?

    Did Oscar kill a lot of horses?

    • betterthannothing

      Sorry, I should have written:

      Isn’t investing in security, integrity and above all abuse, injury and death prevention more important to riders and horses, ethical owners and trainers, horseplayers, the reputation and business of the racing industry than the cost of security, surveillance and tracking technology, tight substance control, transparency of equine medical records, accountability and enforcing the rule of law?

    • Black Helen

      Not as many as Baffert and Pletcher!!!!!

      • vinceNYC

        And how do you know that,,,,,where do you think 2500 claimers go

    • vinceNYC

      they did….and like most claimers , they just stop racing…what do you think happened to the thousands of cheap claimers that have run over the decades?

  • togahombre

    You look at the number of starters he had for the early 80s, that was alot, outfits weren’t big like today, he didn’t ship, not even to monmouth, he was the racing office’s best friend, one time richie migliore was named late to ride one of his horses in the 9th race, he backed out because he didn’t think the horse was live, oscar went up and down the racing office about a rider turning down a mount because he didn’t like his chances, after that he had his pick of any rider in that day, it was a two way street

  • Hamish

    Who was the money behind this fellow? Who were the real owners of his horses? What vets, farriers, feed suppliers, vitamin and supplement salesmen did he do business with that the others did not? Barrera’s story is not that different than the many that crop up from time to time now.

  • wabstat

    I can still remember the call of the great Marshal Cassidy as the horses turned for home in the Woodward …..
    “Shifty Sheik, former claimer, leads by two!”

    God bless Slew o’ Gold.

    • Marshall Cassidy

      That was a hell of a day, wasn’t it? Darned near as surprising as Runaway Groom!

  • Fallow1

    The only diff between then and now is…………………… there’s a bunch of OB’s doing their thing at the same time.

    Oscar was one of the first IN YOUR FACE magicians, paved the way.

    • vinceNYC

      Pete Ferriaola , Bob Debonis a few years before oscar , there were others……

  • Bob C

    Do I actually see people in the stands behind Barrera? Wow, there really was a time when people went to the racetrack!

  • FastBernieB

    I remember the 80’s from the standardbred side. An abrupt turnaround in a horses form would draw the comment “he’s been to the Dairy Queen.” I’m not sure if “milkshaking” was quite as prevalent on the thoroughbred side but standardbreds who had been “stopping” changed barns and suddenly were finishing their miles, often with the fastest quarter of the race. TCO2 levels weren’t checked back then so it went on for an extended period of time. I have no idea if Oscar did this but I’ll offer it as a possibility.

  • Ginger2000

    This is a great example of what is wrong with racing. Here is an article about a cheater. And it is a positive article. Told fondly. Cheaters – and clearly his stats after having positive tests show he was cheating – should not be memorialized as folk heroes.

    • AngelaFromAbilene

      You don’t know anything of the sort. You’re just espousing drivel.

    • vinceNYC

      If you are GAMBLING you follow the hot trainer and Oscar off the claim was awesome.
      If it bothers you so much , follow a sport without cheaters….I think you may be down to just tiddlywinks to follow

  • Stixnstones42

    Oscar was the beginning of the end of racing as an important sporting event.

  • Jim S.

    I was working for the State RWB at Finger Lakes 1984,’85 and ’86. I used to be discusted at the stock Oscar Berrera Jr. was running for his father. All former woriers his old man had claimed and raced down state before they were broken harted cripples, unable to outrun a fat man.
    Most of these abused animals had a few starts in bottom claimers before disapearing from the racing seen all together.
    There is no way with in the realm of posibilty Oscar was even remotely clean. He gets a trivial spanking for a minnor medication offence and never returns to remotley resembling a skillfull horsmen. He made many honest, hard working professionals look foolish with his “magic”.
    What puzzles me most is the secret has been kept for all this time. I hope I live long enough to experience the complete truth to Oscar’s 3 year Magic Show.

  • cvb

    Average field size was much larger in 1983, so a 21 percent trainer then was like a 30 percent trainer today.

  • Kingturf

    A buddy of mine would joke after his passing….who inherited Oscar’s refrigerator? Even though I never met the man, I made a few bets on some of those horses back in the 80’s. I would laugh watching them win because under conventional handicapping, no way in hell should you ever bet them. Saw many run on 2 or 3 days rest. But I will add, just off of memories if the horses was claimed by someone else. I always threw them out. I am just saying…lol

  • Yes I remember the Magic Man, and yes a lot more people did go out to the races then. At that time in NY there was no Lasix in NY, I bought some horses from NY, took them to KY, lasix was legal there as well as race day bute most of them won. I think Oscar stopped the bleeding and probably milkshaked.. that would make for a lot of winners. In the good old days they didn’t do drug testing, you think those old boys didn’t use what ever they could to win a race. Look at what show horse people will do just for a ribbon, like tying a horses head up high to the wall of his stall all night long. Racing is more of a business today, horses are shipped all over the world, vets play a bigger part and have more advanced methods than baking soda.
    Racing is more regulated, tested, and scrutinized than ever, and yet we have less spectators, and enthuses, no one wants to go to the race track and see the Magic and excitement of a live race. I miss the Magic.

    • vinceNYC

      I think they tested OSB’s horses but testing was nowhere near as sophisticated as today

  • Colin Cespn

    I remember working on the backside then, 2 barns next to Oscar. There were MANY trainers who were would not be happy (afraid ????) if Oscar claimed from them. There were quite a few horses he claimed and GREATLY moved-up.

    What was he using/doing? Will we ever know?

    • Barry Irwin

      Tinky would like you to believe that he knows. Does that count? Didn’t think so!

  • AngelaFromAbilene

    Don’t let these people get to you. Most of them don’t know which end of the horse eats much less anything about training a RACEhorse. They just like to demean anyone who has any kind of success running horses.

  • raernaz

    It’s OK to be suspicious about his success. It’s OK to speculate what he might have been done to get the horses to perform.

    But either “Put up”, with facts, or “Shut up”, with prejudice. Neither man is around to defend himself, and the worries from 30 years ago are far dwarfed by concerns of today. Maligning the dead is pretty poor sportsmanship even for the Internet.

  • Sue M. Chapman

    Thank you, Ray for the memories. It is reprehensible that all the commentary comes from people who neither knew Oscar, nor ever set foot in his barn. His horses never saw the racetrack between races. We jogged in the barn on a shedrow Oscar created by reusing the shaving his horses were bedded on. It eliminated any joint concussion for his horses. Many trainers have since followed suit, including the once successful Gaspar Moschera. I will also say that if a horse was really sore, there was no quick fix. When NYRA finally shut him down with a 45 day suspension, the magic ended. Like his brothers Laz, Luis and Guillermo (Willy), Oscar was a proud man who knew his horses. Considering the number of horses he ran, I believe his breakdown rate was low.

  • Patrick Hagan

    Oscar was the reason why NYRA decided to lower the minimum show payoff from $2.20 to $2.10. Often times, massive amounts of show bets were being placed on Oscar’s horses – so much so that the tracks were losing big $ on negative show pools – henceforth NYRA lowering the minimum on show payoffs.

  • vinceNYC

    The only graded stakes winner OSB ever trained was Fabulous Move

    • Fallow1

      the only reason he didn’t mess with higher class horses, is he didn’t want to get under the skin of the BigWigs. When his Shifty Sheik almost won a big graded stakes race, they probably told him, in his native tongue, pull that again, and you’ll be back training donkeys in Cuba the next day.

  • Dangerbird9

    Suggested Reading: “Betting Horses To Win” (Les Conklin). Not magic–history!

  • pete

    Iowa Derby winner, LookingCool, was clained by Oscar Barerra III in a $20K claining race today at Aqueduct. How nuch longer can this poor horse hang on?

  • pete

    Iowa Derby winner, LookingCool, was clained by Oscar Barerra III in a $20K claining race today at Aqueduct. How nuch longer can this poor horse hang on?

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