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"But I get to Liberty Bell, to the one motel that will take me, and here comes David right behind me, with the whole family and 14 U-Hauls, dead broke. He is just in from Dee-troit, where he blew it all on the last race on a horse named Bourbon Delight. The race is something like 14 miles and a sixteenth, and Bourbon Delight gets beat a nose. Vance says, one more jump. Here he has got a horse that can do 14 miles and an eighth, and just his luck they card a race at 14 and a sixteenth.
"It was that kind of winter. Oh, we were broke. It was so bad, we were playing nickel-dime poker games, and there was hot six-dollar checks floating around. And Dave, oh, he had some dynamite clients. So I did him a few favors, what I could. They'd be a call from Detroit, a man, say, looking for David Vance. Oh, I'd say, whatever for? Man say, well, this is the feed store in Deetroit and we have this bill. I'd say, sorry, no David Vance here. A few favors. So, that New Year's Eve at the bar he looks down to me, and he yells to the bartender, buy that tricky son of a bitch one, too. That's where I got the name."
At this point in Vance's career, while he was scuffling just to get even, Lasater decided to get serious about racing. "David had done pretty good with what we had," he says, "so I say, 'I'm going to bring you a little money so you can claim a few.' " Lasater likes this part; he starts to smile before the finish. "So I brought him a hundred thousand, and he 'bout to died."
But Vance did not blow his shot. Not long after he got to work with a bankroll, he claimed a horse named Gage Line for $17,000 and won more than $100,000 with him. After that, says Lasater, "I started chunkin' it in." His stable won $335,000 in purses that first year, 1971; $756,000 in '72; $1,498,785 in '73 to lead the country for the first time; and the record $3 million this year just past. Besides Vance, there are two other full-time trainers—Gordon Potter, usually in the East, and J. R. Smith, who handles the Midwest—plus Goose Heimer, who is Vance's assistant. At any one time Lasater may have up to 165 horses, with 75 or so in training. He has one main farm of 1,500 acres in Ocala, Fla. under the direction of Cotton Tinsley, and a 180-acre farm at Goshen, Ky., which is headed by Neil Huffman and used mostly for breeding and rehabilitation. On the strictly business side of things, Lasater has substantial interests in cattle, commercial real estate, a paper company and a manufacturing company.
But racing is his devotion. Some racing people even suggest that Lasater's is just a vanity operation, that he has so many expenses he is only breaking even, the great purses notwithstanding. Lasater won't discuss the ledger himself. "The two things I'd just as soon not talk about is profits and taxes," he says. But even if he has been taking some losses, he has done so with a purpose. These past two or three years have been only the introductory phase of a long-term plan that will eventually show a greater emphasis on breeding, where the money is, and quality horses, where the prestige and money is. Lasater is not diverted by his fancy gross; he is strictly a bottom-line man. When people ask Nelson Bunker Hunt, one of the wealthiest individuals in the country, in the world, why he has gotten heavier into horses, Hunt quotes Lasater on the subject: "I wanted to get out of the stock market and into something sensible."
This year will show the first substantive change in the Lasater stable: his own stock will be coming to the races in force. His first homebred ran in '73; significantly, it was a stakes winner, Honky Star. In 1974 only three of his 2-year-olds reached the races, but this year up to 25 2-year-olds will be in training. There are 35 yearlings gamboling in Ocala, and 50 Lasater mares are in foal (including one each to Secretariat and Riva Ridge) with the future colts and fillies of the 2-year-old class of '77.
Until now he has never had an outstanding stakes colt, and the stable has succeeded mostly by pecking the opposition to death in cheaper races. The top national money stables seldom have been claiming outfits, although a few years ago the Marion Van Berg stable was regularly the leader with claimers. But Lasater overwhelms a card, sometimes running in almost every race, day in, day out. It must be exasperating to go against him. Responding in the way they know best, Philadelphians amiably boo Lasater horses, win or lose. Not long ago a good jockey came to Lasater and begged for a chance to ride. "The big red L is just getting to me," he said plaintively. In the East, where racetracks dot the landscape like Burger Chefs, Lasater may stable the bulk of his horses at one track, say in Jersey, but spot others down the road, in Pennsylvania and Maryland, vanning horses around from track to track to find the right race. Plus the bunch in Chicago. There was a time this fall when Lasater was the leading owner, by far, at Sportsman's Park, Monmouth and Keystone, and so were his trainers and his No. 1 jockeys.
When you first hear Lasater talking about his stable, he sounds exactly like someone else, a type outside of racing. Who is it? Well, it is a football coach, talking about depth and weaknesses. If Lasater and Vance come to a track and see that the racing secretary is scheduling distance $10,000 claiming races and lots of 2-year-old maiden filly sprints, well, they will go out and get themselves a $10,000 distance horse and some maiden fillies, precisely as a coach short of linebackers and offensive guards and wide receivers will draft and trade to fill those gaps. "Yeah, that's right," says Lasater, "and what I really want is the halfback, the big star."
Charles Cella, the president of Oak-lawn, which is Lasater's favorite track, says, "Dan is the first thoroughbred owner to come along who keeps cheap horses, medium-priced horses and some good horses, and who also has good, firm connections, with an eye toward developing the very best horses."
The linchpin to all this is Vance. "I don't pretend to be no trainer," Lasater says. "David does the miracles." Withdrawn, nearly cryptic at his place of business, Vance will sit on his stable pony, Ronnie, for hours every morning, watching silently as the horses flow by, exercising—his own horses and those from other stables. Occasionally, he will spit. Lasater has come out at times and stood by Vance for minutes without obtaining so much as an acknowledgment. "Let me tell you about David," Lasater says. "It was pouring down rain yesterday morning, but from 6:30 to 11 he was sitting on his pony out there looking at horses. He ain't in the kitchen drinking coffee."