Trainer Dale Capuano looks to add to record 11 Maryland Million wins

Good luck nudging Dale Capuano to reflect on his 11 Maryland Million victories.

No trainer has won more races on the day designed to showcase the state’s thoroughbred industry. And that’s fitting.

Capuano’s father, Phil, was a Maryland trainer. His brother, Gary, is a Maryland trainer. He’s rarely left his home state in a 36-year career that includes more than 3,000 wins. He is Mr. Maryland for his generation, just as King Leatherbury, Bud Delp, Dick Dutrow and John Tammaro were for the generation before.

But try to get the 54-year-old Capuano to “toot his own horn” ahead of Saturday’s 32nd Maryland Million at Laurel Park, and he’ll tell you about the losses.

They always outnumber the wins, you see. The bad beats happen in streaks. The miraculous victories happen one at a time.

Sure, Capuano has won 3,328 career races. But he’s lost almost 14,000. Sure, he’s won 11 on Million day. But for the first 10 years of the event, he didn’t win any.

“We didn’t start off too well,” he says in typically understated fashion. “But once you get the first one under your belt, like anything else I guess, it gets a little easier.”

He’ll take four more shots on Saturday. He likes fillies Chapel of Chimes and Rocky Policy but sounds less certain about his other entries, Tricky Lion and Fly and Flutter. Maybe he’ll add to his win total. Maybe he won’t. Either way, he’ll probably be back with another batch next year.

Capuano’s career record — he ranks 24th all time and 15th among active trainers in victories — is a testament to persistence, even if he shrugs and says, “They’re just numbers.”

Gary Capuano is a year younger than Dale, and he’ll be the first to say his brother is the true horse lover in the family. When they were kids, Gary wanted to do other things. But no one could tear Dale away from the track and the work he did for their father’s small-time operation in Bowie.

“I could take it or leave it,” Gary Capuano says. “He lived it and breathed it.”

Phil Capuano, who died in 2013, knew how difficult it was to make a living in the racing game. But he saw that his elder son had inherited the same passion he felt as a boy riding horses through Rock Creek Park. Dale was the one who came to wake him up before sunrise to go to the barn. So he didn’t try to talk the boy out of a career in training.

“I knew the whole time that’s what I wanted to be,” Capuano says. “From a very young age.”

His work ethic only intensified when he earned his trainer’s license in 1981 and took over his father’s barn. He often arrived at 4 a.m. and didn’t leave until 8 or 9 p.m. He threw his mental energy into claiming, the art of spinning someone else’s disappointing horse into an unexpected winner.

“I just remember watching him in the paddock, and he’d look at every horse in every race, every day,” Gary says. “Making his little notes.”

In fact, Capuano picked up his biggest earner, Heros Reward, on a claim. He unlocked the horse’s potential by moving him from the dirt to the turf, and Heros Reward ultimately won $1.3 million.

One of the only adornments in Capuano’s modest office on the end of Barn 19 at Laurel is a wall of photos behind his desk. He doesn’t have children, so the shots chronicle his finest horses and their trips to the winner’s circle.

He turns and points to a shot of Heros Reward. “We got lucky there,” he says. Again, no romance.

Local estate attorney Lou Ulman has entrusted his horses to Capuano for almost 30 years and says he’s struck by how little the trainer has changed in that time.

“He’s honest and I trust him implicitly, but more than that, he still has that fire to win,” Ulman says.

When he calls about a potential claim, Capuano invariably responds with detailed observations about the horse in question. If the animal had a swollen knee or a gimpy ankle after his last race, he knows.

Capuano secured Ulman’s best horse ever, Praise Heaven, through a claim. He then trained Praise Heaven to a victory in the Jennings Handicap after the horse was laid up for a year with a condylar fracture in his leg.

“Just a remarkable feat of training,” Ulman says.

Gary Capuano eventually realized the racing game would keep pulling him back in, so he accepted his fate and launched his own successful training operation. He hasn’t won as many races as Dale, but he had Captain Bodgit, who broke as the favorite in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and finished a narrow second to Silver Charm in each.

Dale also went to the Derby once with a gelding named Wind Splitter. But 1989 was a tough year to crack with Sunday Silence and Easy Goer at the front of the 3-year-old pack. Wind Splitter finished 11th.

Despite the inevitable dips and crests in their respective careers, the brothers have never thought of themselves as rivals. If Dale ever needs a repair to anything mechanical, his first call is to Gary. They share an accountant, their 79-year-old mother, Connie.

“When we’re in the same race, we both want to win,” Gary says. “But if I can’t, I sure hope he’s the one who beats me.”

The brothers share a relentlessly practical outlook. It’s nice to dream of Hall of Fame horses and million-dollar purses, they say. But if you can carve out a living week after week and year after year, you’re doing better than most.

Perhaps that’s why neither left Maryland for long.

Dale says he thought about decamping a few times when the financial prospects for Maryland racing appeared particularly bleak. But he didn’t feel right leaving loyal clients such as Ulman.

“This is our roots,” Gary says. “This is our home. And the racing’s been good to us.”

Dale realizes he’s been around long enough that he’s becoming an antique, a link to the days when it was daunting for a young trainer to break into the Maryland scene because several of the nation’s best were based here.

“You don’t get the feel like you used to,” he says. “You don’t see as many people at the track. You don’t get as many owners coming out, because they’re busy, and they can watch it wherever they’re at. It’s just different.”

He turns to the photo wall and points to a blurry shot of his first winner at Bowie. “Look at all the people around the winner’s circle,” he says. “That’s the way it was.”

He recently walked up to Leatherbury, still training at age 84, and said: “King, I’m in the same boat as you now. I’m old. You’re just older.”

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