The trainer, weather-worn, cautious and speaking in the staccato rhythm of his native tongue, gave his final instructions to the small, dark jockey in the red and white silks: "Pegate a los punteros y no hagas tu movimiento hasta la recta final. Aqu� es muy larga."
Nowadays, thanks to Baeza, Ycaza, Cordero, Velasquez, et al., Spanish is as much a part of the scene at Aqueduct and other major racetracks in the U.S. as the daily scratch sheet. In 1937, however, it was heard about as often as Russian or perhaps Rumanian. The man who spoke it this day was Jose Cuevas, and the rider he spoke to was Miguel Villena, both of Chile. The red-and-white racing silks worn by Miguel were those of one Clarence Shockley of Los Angeles, a quiet, diffident, red-haired gentleman who had journeyed to Chile and brought back several racehorses, two of whom were named Sahri II and Caballero II.
It was June 25, 1937, and the five just mentioned—Shockley, Cuevas, Villena and the two fast and fit horses—were about to ambush the bookmakers at Aqueduct for something like half a million dollars in tax-free American currency.
The groundwork for this coup was laid earlier that spring when Shockley checked into a barn at Belmont Park, roughly 10 miles from the old Aqueduct, with his new horses. At that time South American horses were considered as foreign in this country as racing on grass. Along with the alien horses came two grooms, equally foreign, who doubled as exercise riders. The trainer, Cuevas, and the rider, Villena, did not appear until later. The grooms, lonely and mute because of language problems in a strange country, managed, nevertheless, to discover a cigar store on nearby Hempstead Turnpike, which was, marvel of marvels, run by a pair of horse-loving Cubans who also spoke Spanish. In short order they were all friends.
Meanwhile back at the track, Sahri II and Caballero II were winning themselves a curious nickname, The Ku Klux Horses. The first few times Shockley sent them out on the training track to canter they wore unusual equipment: hoods that completely masked their heads except for eye slits and half sheets or blankets that were draped over their backs. It gave them a chilling appearance in the half light and gray mood of the dawn training hours. The hoods and half sheets were borrowed from an English training method, designed to make horses fit without strenuous workouts. The theory was that perspiration and slow gallops would do it and not tip off the experts that a horse was ready.
The clockers at Belmont, men who lived by the numbers on the stopwatch, paid no attention to the two Chilean horses after their opening jokes about the Ku Kluxers. In the second week of June New York racing moved from Belmont to Aqueduct. That meant the clockers were spending their afternoons far removed from the Belmont training track, where the hooded wonders were still working out. There was, therefore, no one to notice when on certain of those afternoons Sahri II and Caballero II, with the two Chilean exercise boys up, put in some swift workouts.
There was a good deal of conversation on some of those June evenings between the Chileans and the Cubans in the cigar store. However, it was all in Spanish, so nobody knew what it was about, and nobody thought anything of the matter when the Cubans sold the store for a reported price of $10,000.
In 1937 all betting at the New York tracks was with bookmakers, about 100 of whom—legalized by the state—operated on stools with odds chalked on slates. Most of them were in the grandstand, but some were in the clubhouse. It was a more personal way of betting than with the computerized pari-mutuels of today. Best of all, if you bet a horse at 50 to 1 that was the price you got, even if he went down to 8 to 1.
On June 25th, 1937 Sahri II was entered in the first race at Aqueduct, a claiming race for $2,000 platers. The purse was $1,000, with $700 going to the winner. Caballero II was dropped into the fourth race, an event for $4,000 claimers.
The handicappers in the racing papers were not impressed with either Sahri II or Caballero II. The unvarying comment was: "Nothing to recommend this one."