by Doug McCoy
A journalist came to Ron Alfano’s barn one summer morning in 1976 looking to gather information for a story he planned on doing about the young trainer.
When the writer told Alfano of his plans, the trainer laughed and said, “Are you sure you’ve got the right barn? I’ve only got three horses and you can outrun two of them.”
Alfano was partially accurate about his string, and while two of his runners were nondescript, the “big horse” in the barn was anything but average. Alfano had claimed Cheerful Bragg from King T. Leatherbury at Bowie earlier that season for $6250, and by the time he lost the runner, Cheerful Bragg had won eight races for Alfano. It was that horse that helped launch a career than has spanned some four decades.
Alfano has seen and experienced it all since taking out his trainer’s license in 1972. The 69-year-old’s career has been punctuated with dazzling highs and crushing lows. Among Maryland’s top trainers in the 1980s, Alfano won at least 100 races eight straight seasons, including a blockbuster year in 1981 when he won 210 races.
But then several of Alfano’s biggest owners died in a short period of time, he lost a number of his runners, and he went from the mountaintop to the valley. He won 100 races in 1987; by 1990, his win total was down to 31. He slogged through the 1990s, winning from nine to 31 races each season. By 2003, when he had one winner from 12 starts, he was nearly out of the business.
“It was tough at times, that’s for sure,” said Alfano, who has won more than 1,800 races. “But if you’re a race tracker, you realize at some point in time that you’re in this for life and you’ve got to just hang in and do the best you can.”
Then in 2004 he was hired by William Rickman Sr. as the private trainer for the Rickman stable. Rickman, the colorful construction magnate, purchased Delaware Park with William Christmas in 1983 and was instrumental in bringing gaming to Delaware in the form of slot machines in 1995. The move revitalized racing in the state. The elder Rickman passed away at age 84 in 2005, but his daughter Cynthia took an active role in the management of the Rickmans’ Thoroughbred holdings. She and Alfano have slowly improved the stable, culling some of the broodmares and making sound decisions on breeding and placement of their runners.
The past three seasons Rickman runners trained by Alfano have won at 23, 24, and 26 per cent (this season) and a win by Looking for Lucky in the seventh race on Thursday at Delaware Park gave Alfano five winners from 19 starters at the current meeting and his runners have finished first or second in nine of those starts.
Despite his ability to adapt, Alfano is keenly aware of changes in the game. While many in racing point to any number of high-profile changes — the presence of Lasix, the rise of commercial breeding and concomitant decline of the great family racing and breeding dynasties, and many others — Alfano has found one of the biggest challenges residing in a more subtle development.
“Writing extra races all over the place makes it all but impossible to set a training plan for your horses,” he pointed out. “In the old days you could look at the new condition book, pick a race for a particular horse and train up to that race with a fair amount of confidence that the race would be used. These days they don’t use the race in the book and instead juggle extras around. Then they want you to go in a race you don’t belong in.”
It’s not something that affects the biggest horses in the biggest races, Alfano admits. That doesn’t make it less important for the working class horses that populate most races on most cards.
“When the big races come around people talk about ‘crucial workouts’ leading up to those races,” he said. “Every horse has crucial points in its training schedule, whether they’re a graded stakes winner or a $5,000 claimer. You can’t ‘untrain’ your horse. You can’t switch a horse’s target date and expect them to be at their best.”