John Pricci executive editor John Pricci has over three decades of experience as a thoroughbred racing public handicapper and was an award-winning journalist while at New York Newsday for 18 years.

John has covered 14 Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, all but three Breeders' Cups since its inception in 1984, and has seen all but two Belmont Stakes live since 1969.

Currently John is a contributing racing writer to, an analyst on the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, and co-hosts numerous handicapping seminars. He resides in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The More Things Change…

An old colleague sent this to me yesterday, courtesy of Pro Quest. He thought of this column because, had he lived, February 5th would have been Oscar Barrera's 90th birthday.

I guess, sadly, he thought it might still have some relevance in the modern game. Anyway...

April 7, 1991--With apologies to Woody Stephens, Darrell Wayne Lukas and Shug McGaughey, the late Oscar Sosa Barrera was the most influential trainer in New York during the last decade.

The death certificate will read that Barrera died late Thursday night of congestive cardiac failure and pulmonary distress.

But the real cause of death might have been a broken spirit, such was Barrera's abject failure in the past few years, in which his free-fall descent from atop the trainer's standings was as inexplicable as his meteoric rise.

Barrera's forte was the claiming game, where recently acquired animals improved dramatically in what sometimes seemed like a matter of hours.

After toiling nobly but without impact for decades in shadows cast by his brother Lazaro, famed conditioner of Triple Crown hero and two-time Horse of the Year Affirmed, Oscar became a force. Newly claimed horses enabled him to lead New York's trainers in victories for four consecutive years beginning in 1983.

The form reversals that had become embarrassingly routine caught the attention of inquiring writers, who believed Barrera's horses ran on more than hay, oats and water. Testers never could find anything. And neither could the undercover work of New York Racing Association investigators.

The grapevine, far more cruel and unforgiving on the racetrack than in many other lines of work, spoke of designer drugs that were six months ahead of their time, and of endorphins. So cruel, in fact, that a colt sired by Barrera (named for Laz) was named Juice after being purchased by a rival outfit.

It was said then, as it is now, that Barrera's rise coincided very closely with the declining on-track attendance of the mid-'80s and with the atrophied bankrolls of rival horsemen. Ultimately, Barrera's rise was held accountable for the near-death of the mid-level claiming game in New York.

Barrera's colleagues often complained they had difficulty explaining to their owners how Barrera achieved such stunning winning streaks with horses recently claimed from them, after those animals enjoyed only moderat success beneath their own sheds.

Shifty Sheik, who rose from underachieving claimer to stakes horse for Barrera, and the prodigious streaks of Creme de la Fete and Teriyaki Stake are the most frequently mentioned examples of Barrera's magic.

Oscar - such was his notoriety that no last name was necessary - held some turf writers responsible for his recent slide. According to NYRA statisticians, he was winless from 26 starters this year after posting a desultory 27-for-434 record last year.

Writers and horseplayers, while lacking any evidence, often questioned how a horseman could rise from obscurity to star and back again, virtually overnight.

Away from the racetrack, Oscar Barrera was a genuinely likeable man; gruffly warm, loyal and generous to a fault. His rise and fall was emblematic of what racetrack life truly can be. After all, aren't all fun-seeking horse lovers looking for an edge?

The infectious disease common to all racetracks once was identified by one of Barrera's colleagues, Howie Tesher, as the "manure syndrome," a peculiar form of mental illness peculiar to horseplayers. I mention this because it helps explain how on one hand I was a Barrera antagonist and how, on the other, his death saddened me.

The fortunes of racing sometimes are cruelly ironic. An hour before Barrera was taken fatally ill, he tightened the girth on a nondescript claiming filly named Loco Bleu. She had a handicapper's chance to get Barrera off his 1991 schneid. A disappointing favorite on a sloppy track in her last start, she was a good third in a previous fast-track outing.

The thinking was that the switch to Aqueduct's main track, the addition of blinkers and a switch to a live apprentice were positive signs. "In the old days {meaning 1983-86}, this filly would have been 6-5," one experienced observer said.

In the final flash of the tote board, Loco Bleu was backed from 5-1 to 7-2. Trailing the pace while in hand and up into the bridle, Loco Bleu made two, perhaps three, small moves before checking in an even fifth. Gone was the old-days stretch kick, and gone, too, were the dollars that would have made a horse like Loco Bleu the favorite in the height of Oscar's reign.

About an hour later, Barrera was taken by ambulance to Jamaica Hospital.

Written by John Pricci

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