By sheer number of races won, the most successful trainers in the U.S. in recent seasons have not been the famous veterans like Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons but, rather, three little-known men who are virtual newcomers to the sport.
They are 39-year-old Vester R. Wright of Gallatin, Tenn., who was leading trainer in 1959 with 172 winners, 41-year-old Frank H. Merrill Jr. of Brantford, Ont., who was second with 162, and 60-year-old William Hal Bishop of Anna, Ill., third with 161.
What they have in common—besides success—is a strategy of concentrating on claiming races and trading, buying and selling horses in a steady turnover of their stock.
Claiming races are a device for equalizing competition in order to insure a constant flow of entries, closely fought races and, therefore, a good volume of betting. In these races, horses are classified according to the value put on them by their stables. A horse that a trainer believes is worth about $5,000 is entered in a $5,000 claiming race to meet other horses of about the same value. To prevent owners from entering in a $5,000 race a horse really worth, say, $12,000, all those entered in the race are liable to be claimed for purchase at $5,000; a trainer who has started at least one horse at a race meeting is eligible to claim any horse starting in any of the claiming races at that meeting. Most races at American tracks are claimers (ranging from $1,000 to $20,000), simply because there are many more cheap horses than good ones.
The most successful horsemen in the claiming division have the skill to detect subtle faults and weaknesses—and hidden virtues—in their horses and in rival horses, as well as the alertness to take immediate advantage of that insight. Wright, Merrill and Bishop are just such expert observers and operators; their mental file on thousands of horses is extraordinary.
Wright—called Tennessee—has been the leading trainer three times in the last four years. Since 1949 he has averaged 115 winners per season, principally with horses owned by T. Alie Grissom, James L. Paddock and E. J. Grosfield, his major patrons ever since he began his career as a trainer.
Hard-working, hard-playing, hard-betting Wright was raised on the famed Foxland Hall Farm at Gallatin, Tenn., which his father managed for 17 years. Wright rode at hunt meets, served a hitch in the Air Force during the war and then decided to settle down as a plumber's assistant. But he found that jockeying a Stillson wrench was too sedentary for his tastes; he turned to horse racing and landed a job as a groom with the stable of Detroit's Perne L. Grissom, Alie's brother.
Wright rose to foreman of the outfit and later was hired as a trainer by Alie Grissom, Paddock and Grosfield and later became a one-quarter partner in the stable. Tennessee handles horses for other owners as well, charging a flat $12 a day per horse training fee plus 10% of the winnings.
"I've got about 70 head in New Orleans," Wright said recently. "Some 45 are stabled at the Fair Grounds and another 25 are at the Magnolia track across town with my foreman, Gordon Potter. I carry something like 50 men, and my expenses run me between $30,000 and $35,000 a month." Tennessee has to win plenty of races to stand the nut, and he does. His stable earned well over half a million dollars during 1959, and he points out that in 11 years of training, he has never had a losing season. He has an excellent eye for young horses. He purchased Money Broker at the yearling sales for $3,300, and the colt won the $100,000 Florida Derby plus other good stakes.
Wright and William Hal Bishop now leave each other's stock alone by mutual agreement, but before this truce was reached Tennessee once claimed (or "haltered," as they call it around the tracks) a horse named Shoerullah from Bishop for $10,000 and went on to win about $75,000 with him.