Carlos R. Figueroa, a longtime New England trainer known as the "King of the Fairs," passed away Jan. 3 in New Hampshire from complications of pneumonia. He was 88.
Born March 28, 1928 in Puerto Rico, he emigrated to the United States as a young man and found his way to the New England tracks to begin his several decades-long career training mostly low-level claiming horses.
Figueroa, who each year would drape a huge banner touting himself as "The King of the Fairs" across the roof of his Rockingham Park barn, is famous, or notorious, in New England for running the same horse five times in eight days on the Massachusetts circuit and winning all five races.
"The story is definitely true. The horse's name was Shannon's Hope," said New York-based assistant trainer Lorita Lindemann, who grew up in his Rockingham Park barn when Figueroa trained horses owned by her mother. Lindemann then went to work for Figueroa as soon as she graduated high school and took out her license in 1992.
A look back at the Daily Racing Form Chart Book for August 1963 verifies the story. In the final race of the Weymouth Fair meeting Aug. 17, Shannon's Hope scored a three-length win in a 6 1/2-furlong race. Three days days later, the 7-year-old gelding scored by five lengths at odds of 6-1 going five furlongs at the Marshfield Fair.
Shannon's Hope enjoyed a two-day rest before winning races three days in a row at Marshfield: taking a 6 1/2-furlong test by six lengths Aug. 22, a five-furlong test by a neck Aug. 23, and a five-furlong race Aug. 24 by 2 1/2 lengths.
In a 2001 New York Times story by Bill Mooney, Figueroa recalled the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals investigated his handling of Shannon's Hope, who registered an 8-9-8 record from 52 starts in 1963.
''I told them, 'I run Shannon's Hope short distances, 6 1/2 furlongs, no farther,' '' he said in the story. ''This Paul Revere, he's a hero in Massachusetts, but he ran his horse 26 miles in one night!''
The multiple stakes-placed conditioner saddled his last starter at Suffolk Downs Nov. 13, 2010, according to Equibase, and retired with 846 wins from 9,841 starts from 1976-2010. The Figueroa runners in those years earned $4,186,889 for an average of $425 per start. Figueroa trained horses many years before 1976, gaining fame on the old Massachusetts fair circuit.
That circuit included Northampton, the Brockton Fair in eastern Massachusetts, Franklin, Great Barrington, Marshfield, Taunton, Topsfield, and Weymouth. Known as one of Thoroughbred racing's true characters, the tall, debonair and mustachioed Figueroa had a style that could politely be termed unorthodox.
"He was an original, that's for sure," said Lindemann, who went on to work for Steve Asmussen, Linda Rice, Joe Sharp, and Michael Pino in the ensuing years.
Another of Figueroa's former assistants is Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farms founder and president Michael Blowen, who worked as a groom and owned a few horses in the barn while he was simultaneously employed as the film critic and columnist for The Boston Globe.
In the late 1990s, Blowen convinced Monty Roberts, known as "The Horse Whispere,r" to detour from a local appearance at the Topsfield Fair and come to Rockingham to discover why one of his horses was consistently and woefully unsuccessful on the track.
A contingent of media, local horsemen, and track officials gathered outside of the barn to watch Roberts' brief interaction with Blowen's horse. When Blowen asked Roberts when he was going to "talk" to the horse, Roberts replied, "I already did. It took him 10 seconds to tell me that he hates racing, hates being yelled at, hates being hit with a stick, and hates it here."
"The horse was Fly McGrew and it's all true," said Blowen, who promptly retired Fly McGrew but still has his Figueroa Racing jacket emblazoned with "assistant king" over the heart.
Blowen, who labored in the barn for two years without ever seeing a paycheck, has many fond memories of his former mentor and holds him close in his heart.
"We have a horse here at Old Friends named Summer Atttraction, who I think just turned 23, that I owned. Carlos ran him as a 2-year-old in a two-furlong maiden race at Suffolk Downs in a four-horse field in 1997 on a big day. One of the other horses was owned by Jim Moseley (Suffolk's late track owner and a prominent owner and breeder) and that horse cost over $200,000. Summer Attraction, whom I paid $5,000 for, won.
"So Carlos decided to next run him at Saratoga in the Sanford (G3). The race came up so tough that Favorite Trick (eventual 2-year-old champion and 1997 Horse of the Year) scratched out of it.
"In the paddock, the reporters all wanted to talk to Carlos even though Nick Zito, Wayne Lukas, and the other big-time trainers were there with their horses. Carlos told them, 'If my horse wins, they're going to rename the race Sanford & Son.' My horse ran two furlongs and stopped cold. That story sums up The King."
Even after Blowen moved to Kentucky, the two remained close friends.
"I talked to Carlos just a few days ago, and he told me this was his last round-up," Blowen said. "He was one-of-a-kind in an era we will never see again. If it weren't for Carlos, there would never have been an Old Friends. He taught me everything."
Figueroa is survived by his wife of many years, Pearl, two step-sons, two brothers and a sister. Funeral arrangements are pending.