Visitors to the Laurel Park barn of Ben Feliciano Jr. sometimes mistake the young trainer for his hired help.
Callers remark that it's wonderful how well his father is doing as a trainer.
And patrons at the track can't help but think that the smiling trainer in the winner's circle looks remarkably like that nice young man who used to park cars.
After tolerating such unintended slights, Feliciano received his just deserts when the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association named him the state's Trainer of the Year.
A panel of owners and trainers selected Feliciano, in part, because he is Maryland through and through. He is based exclusively in the state and has been immersed in Maryland racing all his life.
But most important, his success rate is extraordinary. Feliciano, 34, and his wife and working partner, Laura, 31, have saddled winners this year at the rate of 30 percent.
Asked about their success, Laura, the more willing barn spokesman, said: "At the beginning, we individualized each horse. We had a training program for each horse that tried to meet its particular needs. We still try to do that as best we can.
"But the big thing right now is we have such great owners. They let us do what we think is right. If we didn't have them, we wouldn't have anything."
Laura and Ben met at the racetrack 10 years ago. She worked as a groom, and he exercised horses and parked cars. The son of a well-known jockey, Ben grew up around horses. He began galloping them at 13 and riding as a jockey at 17. He rode two years.
"I was doing so-so," he said. "I didn't set the world on fire or anything."
He settled on exercising horses in the mornings and parking cars in the afternoons. That lasted until five of Feliciano's buddies in the parking lot came up with $5,000 several years ago for him to claim a horse and train.
He claimed Eastern Mystic. She won first time for him, a $6,500 claiming race.
That was the seed for success. For $5,000, Feliciano claimed Pucker, who won four allowance races in a row. For $6,500, he claimed Oops I Am, who set the 5 1/2 -furlong turf record at Laurel Park.
"We took a shot," Laura said. "Nobody in their right mind would have done it. The worst-case scenario was the horses couldn't run and we'd be stuck feeding them."
They reduced their risk by Ben's exercising them and Laura's taking care of them. Trainers gave them stalls, bridles and other equipment.
Ben finally quit his parking job a couple of years ago and began training full-time. Now, married nearly nine years, he and Laura have two children and 20 horses, including stakes-caliber Manage A Buck, Fahmi and Prima Neenya.
They still claim 90 percent of them for eight good-natured owners. You can always spot a Feliciano horse by the pompons in the mane. That's Laura's trademark. She matches the yarn with the owner's colors, which you can often follow all the way back to the winner's circle.
Pub Date: 12/03/98