Whatever happens to the economy, whether it gets worse or even a little bit better, it is going to be a month of Sundays before we see anything like the '60s again. You could run it up a little then. Growth was phenomenal, stocks go-go and, because everything performed, the best things had to outperform; a man in the '60s could still borrow on an idea, cash in on a dream and wind up with money in the bank. Dan Lasater, all of 32 now, may be the last of the breed. Sweeping up at a McDonald's in Kokomo, Ind. in 1960 at the age of 17, he became a fast-food monarch within five years. Then, at 28, he retired and today, a few years after he saw his first horse race, he is setting records as the leading thoroughbred owner of all time.
With 494 wins in 2,105 races, Lasater's stable earned $3,020,521 in 1974, nearly double the previous mark, winning at tracks all over the country in all types of races. He raced horses, bred them, bought and sold them, a full-service juggernaut the likes of which racing had never seen. Yet while he was breaking new ground and records in a hidebound sport that does not usually cotton to brash youth, his stable—an outfit, everybody calls that sort of organization around the tracks—managed to succeed without offending Establishment sensitivities.
"This is a business to us," Lasater says. "I think that's one of the reasons why we're so successful. Why, there's other people come into racing with something like $3 million, and they hire some society trainer they wouldn't let run a tractor in their real business. I like horses, but I don't want to get sentimental about them. I like to make money more, and this is one way to make money."
At The Jockey Club such commercial admissions would normally be considered crass, but Lasater speaks in subdued backwoods tones, so that even his bad grammar is a charming asset. While he can raise all kinds of hell with his buddies in his outfit, he is retiring and self-effacing at the track. Most men who come out of nowhere to strike it rich become condescending and require the gaudy trappings of wealth to reassure themselves of their new status. But Lasater just drifts along, unaffected, somewhere having acquired the most agreeable of patrician instincts.
He is a pretty simple fellow, preferring the company of his friends or, even more, that of fine-looking women. Other special tastes are Crown Royal whiskey—seems like just about everybody in the outfit now drinks Crown Royal—and rock music, from whose lyrics Lasater derives the names of his horses (Hot 'n' Nasty, Honky Star). Instead of hotel suites, Lasater rents houses with the other guys. He is a charitable boss, effusive with praise. His grooms call him Dan, and he enjoys hanging around the track kitchen, shooting the breeze and flirting with the girls. Understand, he's nobody's fool, but he does have a reputation as a soft touch. He's not going to buy any hard sell, or the Brooklyn Bridge, but a little whimsy will do the trick.
One morning a while ago, at Oaklawn, in Arkansas, an old backstretch character named Uncle Otto came up to Lasater and tried to separate a ten from him with an especially fetching report of a hot tip. Lasater carries two rolls, the one a Mardi Gras, just singles and fives and maybe tens, the other containing the real long green. It was to that pocket he reached, and skimmed off a hundred for the old guy. "Run it up a little," he said, giving the C-note to Uncle Otto.
So what the classic old racing types say, as Lasater beats them again and again, is that he is a nice young man, good for racing. This month, in fact, he is to be presented with the prestigious Eclipse Award for being the outstanding owner in racing in 1974. In turn, Lasater, for all his harsh dollars-and-cents declarations, finds racing good for him. While he is, obviously, one of those rare people who have a talent for making money, Lasater is beguiled by the track. "I'm there every morning at 6:30 just to watch 'em train, because I love 'em. I love this business. I love the people. I just love it all."
At the track, Lasater seems to have found again the small town he grew up in. Why do you think so many people are drawn to a track, work around it, never leave it? Because they like horses? Aw, come on. Even for those who adore the animals, they are just the raw material, more lovable, perhaps, than the pineapples of Hawaii or the anthracite of West Virginia, but incidental products just the same. It is the community that holds the people. The backside of a racetrack is the most dependable, structured place left on a discombobulated globe. It moves with a cadence all its own, unaffected by geography or dialect or the intrusions of the real world just beyond the gates. It is one of the last set pieces, one where all the people take their assigned places and all the events move inexorably—the way it used to be in real small towns.
Dan Lasater's town was Sharpsville, in north central Indiana, and it is a reasonable enough facsimile of the backside. His high school pal John Fernung, the principal's son at Sharpsville High, says the town had a grocery store, a liquor store, a pool hall and an American Legion hall. "No movie theater. Hell, we were lucky to have a gas station." Just a few miles down Route 26 is Fairmount, a similar place, where James Dean grew up a few years before Lasater and went off to Hollywood to become the last farm-boy idol before America moved, hook, line and sinker, to the suburbs.
Young Dan left no mark upon the town he grew up in, but he had little opportunity. His family had come north from Searcy, Ark. when he was nine, when Mr. Lasater could no longer scratch out a living from the worn-out soil. He was on his way to the automobile factories of Flint, Mich, but stopped to see an old friend in Kokomo; he found a plant hiring there, and so the family moved down to Sharpsville. For the next 10 years, until he married at 19, Dan, his older brother Don and their parents lived in an 8' x 24' trailer; there often was not enough food to go around. "We were some kind of poor," Lasater says. And yet he is reluctant to discuss his growing up for fear it will reflect unfavorably upon his parents, to whom he is devoted. He cannot see that the remarkable success of their son speaks a great deal for his mother and father.
Fernung recalls that Lasater had little spare time for anything much except girls. He was always working at odd jobs and dreaming the sort of fantasies poor children do. The last time he was with his mother, she pulled out an old high school yearbook and showed him the prophecy for Dan Lasater: Millionaire. "I always wanted that," he says. In April 1960, just before he graduated, he took a job picking up litter at McDonald's for 60¢ an hour. Within the year, at age 18, he was the $9,000-a-year manager.
"Pretty soon I got a little antsy, though," Lasater says, "and I started looking for a guy who would back me for a place of my own. I met Norman Wiese, who was the Olds dealer in town, and he trusted me." This affiliation resulted in Scotty's Hamburger—15¢ a throw in those halcyon days. Shortly afterward, Lasater and Wiese and a third partner, Charles Kleptz, an architect, got the simple idea that was to make them rich: a fast-steak place based on McDonald's fast-hamburger concept. They called it Ponderosa, charged $1.39 for a steak dinner and capitalized it with $5,000 from Wiese, inasmuch as "Norm was still the only one of us with any money." This situation was shortly to be remedied.
"Well, it worked," Lasater says, "and so we ran it up a little. We built another and another, and then it just grew and grew. We woke up one morning and it was on the New York Stock Exchange. Pretty soon after that it was selling 70 times earnings, and in a while I was starting to set chunks over in the corner." The chunks to which he refers were of cash. Lasater's early Ozark background was not submerged altogether in Indiana, and he still speaks with both the flavor and the courtliness of the South. He says, for example, "in a Ju-ly minute" when he means right away, and he employs "ma'am" assiduously, even when he is trying to pick somebody up. The latter disarms a mere male bystander; it apparently works wonders when directed at a member of the opposite sex by the trim, well-mannered, blue-eyed, young, divorced multimillionaire.
Lasater became executive vice-president in charge of the Ponderosa operation ("I know my limitations"), and then he got pretty much bored with the whole thing. He got out and found himself looking around for something to do with himself and his chunks for the next 40 or 50 years. Around that time he ran into his old school buddy Fernung, who notwithstanding a droll and genial disposition fancies himself a roly-poly version of the Angel Lucifer. For reasons that are not clear, Lasater has the same feeling toward lean and hungry men that Caesar had, and keeps about him sleek, round fellows, or "big 'uns," as he refers to them.
The rotund Fernung, a racing buff, introduced Lasater to the track, and soon they had a little operation known as the L & F Stable. It claimed a few muskrats at a place called Beulah Park. More important, Fernung—who left the outfit recently, amiably, to strike out on his own—also brought Lasater and David Vance together. "I'm not in the horse business, I'm in the people business," Lasater always says to explain things, and Vance turned out to be a major people acquisition.
Vance comes from Logansport, Ind., the other side of Kokomo, and he and Lasater had known each other slightly growing up. Thirty-four now, Vance is the son of a trainer, R. E. Vance; he was a jockey as a small boy ("We used to race around them Illinois bushes"). At 14 he was the second-leading rider at a meet in Las Vegas. His future as a rider was hampered by his burgeoning size, which is now 6'1" and, as the weathermen say, somewhere in the mid-to-upper 200s. Vance looks a little like Hoss, late of Bonanza, as a matter of fact, and mornings he wears chaps and a formless dome hat to abet that impression. Taciturn and distant, he spits a great deal of tobacco as the day wears on.
Along about the time that the L &. F Stable came into existence, Vance was just another struggling young trainer, working the bushes at places like the Deetroit Race Course. When the DRC meeting closed late in 1970, he decided to try the new track in Philly, Liberty Bell. Tricky Fischer, the outfit's assistant general manager, remembers Vance's situation very well.
Tricky is bigger than Big John, or even Vance, for that matter, and since he usually wears a small pair of dark glasses and a cagey smile, he looks like a giant raccoon on the loose. His father is a doctor who owns horses, and Tricky graduated from the University of New Mexico, but times were not real good for him, either, in the winter of '70-'71 when he left Sportsman's Park in Chicago for Liberty Bell, where he had a job as a track official. That illustrates, he says, as he begins his account of all this, how desperate racetracks were for officials at that particular time.
"But I'll tell you how bad it was for David," Tricky says, "because I come into Liberty Bell myself that time just before he did, and he was broker'n me and he had a wife and a kid and a baby and one more on the way. What a Cinderella story this is.
"I had $13 when I left Sportsman's, but I was too proud to call my parents. It was freezing cold and there was chewing gum all over the front seat because I'd had this girl in the car not long before, and when I made a move after her, she took her gum out and just sort of stuck it there, and soon, the way things were, it got spread all over the front seat. By the time I get to Ohio it's a blizzard outside, with the chewing gum inside, and by Pittsburgh the snow is butt high to a tall Apache. I slid sideways acrost most of Pennsylvania.
"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."
Vance has total recall when it comes to identifying horses. Working out in the morning, horses don't wear names and numbers. It helps if you can tell them apart. Lasater, who has to ask the grooms to identify his own horses in his own stable, is somewhat in awe of Vance's memory. "One time I was standing out on the track by him," Lasater says, "and this other trainer brings a horse out and David says, 'Well you finally got that horse back.' And the other guy couldn't believe it. Look, it was two years since that horse had bowed. He hadn't been on a track in two years, and David took one look and remembered that horse."
"David don't just attend to his own business," says an admiring crony.
It is in the solitude of the mornings that Vance mostly decides what to claim. He likes to find honest old horses he thinks can be brought back to form. "The best thing for me is, I have this man lets me do what I think's best," Vance says. "I don't get woke up nights asking me why I do things. I can just go out on the track and watch. You see a lot of things out there if you just look. You see a horse three, four days running, you can get familiar with him, and you think you can see how you can get him to win for you."
Claiming is the ultimate in brokering. The man who trades stocks buys individual issues, but his decisions are influenced by the whole market trend. The price of pork bellies and grain futures are likewise affected by such future variables as weather and union disputes, which simply cannot be factored into an equation. Real-estate speculators can look like geniuses because they know where the interchange will be built. Horses are something else again, no excuses. If you make a mistake and claim one who can't run as fast as you thought, then you have got yourself one slow horse is exactly what you've got. Down through American history, it became a badge of praise; the highest acclaim you could pay a clever man was to call him a horse trader. David Vance is a horse trader.
The rules of claiming are clear but subtle, and they must be played like tax loopholes. Mainly, if you take a horse, you cannot run him again at that same selling price, or lower, for 30 days. If, for example, you claim a horse for $10,000, you must run him in a race for more than that price—probably for $12,500—or you must give him the month off, just eating and sleeping. Since it costs about $1,000 to keep a horse for a month, it behooves you to claim one you feel pretty sure is underpriced. For $1,000 you could have some time in Puerto Rico for yourself.
Vance calls this month "jail," and the trick is to make money with the horse while he is still incarcerated. "All I'm interested in is getting one win," he says. "Some guys move a horse too far up the ladder when he's in jail. They'll run a $10,000 at 15, 16. By the time that horse gets out of jail, he's been beat so bad he's lost his confidence, and he can't even win at the 10 you bought him for. Now, on the other hand, if you claim a horse at 10, and he wins for you in jail at 12-five, then you have them. Hell, you can come back and run at seven-five. You'll probably lose him to somebody else there, but in the meantime you can't miss picking up the purse, so you're still ahead. Just give me the one win."
Of course, how Vance gets the one win is something else again. Darrell McHargue, the intelligent young man who rides Lasater's best animals, comes into the track kitchen at Monmouth—which everybody at the races always pronounces without the n—Mamuth—with his agent, Harry (The Hat) Hacek. They get some coffee. "David's pretty well within himself," McHargue says. "Sometimes he's just got me bewildered. There's a lot of trainers that just train physical. That's all they know. David works on a horse's head, too. He outsmarts him and gets him training right."
Lasater comes over with a cup of hot chocolate. It is just past dawn, and Vance is already up on his pony on the track, sitting and spitting for a few hours. Around the stables, at the kitchen, things are coming to life. People are congregating. Lasater says hello to a bunch of people. He is one of those who can stay out till four o'clock drinking Crown Royal whiskey, and then be there at the track at 6:30, quarter of seven, looking like he went to bed with a glass of hot milk and some cookies right after The Waltons went off. Lasater likes the morning at a track better than the afternoon, when the strangers, the tourists from outside the gates, come around and clutter up his place.
Of course, a racetrack is different from a small town in one important way. It is more throbbing, rawer. Because everybody is betting all the time, fortunes change and hopes are higher, whereas the poor people in the small towns are almost always poor, and their prospects are not especially keen. At a racetrack, no matter how tapped out you are, you believe you're always just one big tip away from a score. A lot of people on the backside shovel good money at the iron men every day, but at least some of it comes back occasionally, and that's reason enough to remain a citizen backside.
In the kitchen, over where Lasater got his hot chocolate, a big sign says:
EAT YOUR BETTING MONEY BUT DON'T BET YOUR EATING MONEY
It is an interesting note of caution, even though it so happens that The Frenchman responsible for this piece of advice happens to run the track kitchen at Mamuth and is, therefore, mainly looking out for No. 1.
"The first thing you've got to remember," says Goose Heimer, Vance's assistant from Sioux City, who chews cigars, "is that nobody's around a racetrack who doesn't bet. That's the way it is at a racetrack." Among the grooms in Goose's charge are Tiny, who is the biggest 'un in the whole outfit, Gums, Pop-eye, Worm, Rooster and Snake. "I have very little trouble," Goose says. "You see, human nature bein' what it is, you're going to bet on yourself. Well, this outfit wins more than any other, and so the people who work for it win. Remember that about racetracks. A lot of people forget that when they're trying to explain things."
"This outfit has unison," Harry the Hat says.
"It all runs to the boss," McHargue says. "Your two most important things are your agent and your outfit."
Lasater says, "All my people just want to be the best. It's even sad in a way, because these people I have are so good at what they do, they're the best at it, but it's almost like that's all they care about in the world. They're not comfortable outside the track." He shrugs, somewhat baffled, for he is a very comfortable person himself.
"This is a good business, and a lot of people haven't had the success or the luck we have, but my people work hard being the best. Every time we run, we try to get the money, and if we can't win, we'll go for second, and if we can't get second, we try for third. But it is not just the money. I'll tell you something, the more you win, the better it is. That's what I've found out about this business."
Run it up a little.
Vance sits impassively for hours on a stable pony watching his horses work.
A few of Lasater's army of racers watch Tiny, the groom, rake the area.
Grooms Popeye (above) and Worm sport the oddball nicknames typical of the backstretch.