Leo Nechamkin II gets up at 3:30 each morning so he can arrive at Laurel Park before 5. He takes pride in saying that his horses always greet him by poking their heads out of their stalls, glad to see him.
"This absolutely has been a dream all my life to train horses," said Nechamkin, 53, who lives in Glenwood in Howard County. "I have no problem getting up in the morning and going to the barn."
He takes a change of clothes, because when training's done about 8, he has to begin his transformation. He takes a shower in a backstretch dormitory, dresses up and drives into downtown Baltimore. He works full time as chief financial officer of Design Collective, an architectural firm.
Tomorrow, Nechamkin will saddle the best horse - "by far," he said - he has ever trained, Gators N Bears, in the $200,000 General George Handicap at Laurel. The 4-year-old colt is co-third choice in the seven-furlong sprint with Peeping Tom at 6-1 behind Badge of Silver at 4-5 and Well Fancied at 5-1.
Although Nechamkin trained horses for five years after turning 21 and then started back again 10 years ago, he said, "This is all relatively new to me."
What's new is the level of competition. Gators N Bears provided Nechamkin his first stakes win and at the same time his first graded-stakes win (Grade III Jersey Shore Breeders' Cup last summer at Monmouth Park) and his first appearance in a Grade I stakes (third in the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash last fall at Laurel).
Gators N Bears, whom Nechamkin bought for $8,500 as a 2-year-old, has earned $331,840. He has been first, second or third in 16 of 18 races (eight wins, four seconds, four thirds). Now, Nechamkin is trying to polish him up as a stallion prospect. He's hoping to compile $500,000 in earnings and win a stakes race at the desirable distance of one mile.
"Now I'm getting nervous," Nechamkin said, laughing.
He grew up within biking distance of the horse farm of his great-uncle, Joseph Nechamkin. As a teen-ager, he fell in love with caring for horses. He never lost that, even when he took the long break between training stints to earn a master's degree and become an accountant.
He owned horses with his father, Leo Nechamkin, and worked first as auditor in the admissions department at Laurel, Bowie, Pimlico and other Maryland tracks, and then as controller at Laurel. Since returning to training a decade ago, he has kept his barn small. He has five horses at Laurel and six at Ray-An Farm in Forest Hill.
Gators N Bears was bred by Bob Camac, the New Jersey horseman shot and killed along with his wife in December 2001. The colt is a New Jersey-bred son of Stormy Atlantic and the mare I'll Be Along, by Notebook. Nechamkin didn't know Camac, but they had mutual friends. Nechamkin bought Gators N Bears privately after Camac's death.
"Bobby brought the mare to his farm to foal because he wanted a New Jersey-bred," Nechamkin said. "He knew exactly what he was doing. I've raced Gators N Bears five times in New Jersey, and he's had four wins and a third."
Now the stakes are higher, and Gators N Bears will face a formidable task in the General George against highly regarded horses coming in from out of state. He carries the hopes of the home team.
"This is a tough race," Nechamkin said. "If he happens to hit the board, we'll be glad-handing everybody."
Johnston hurt in spill
Mark Johnston, a former Maryland jockey, suffered a broken collarbone in the three-horse spill Feb. 4 at Turfway Park that killed Mike Rowland. Rowland's mount broke a leg and fell, and Johnston's mount and another horse fell over him.
Doctors told Johnston he would be sidelined six to eight weeks. He's living in Lexington, Ky., and plans to ride this spring at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. He was good friends with Rowland, 41, whom he had gotten to know in the early 1990s when Rowland rode briefly in Maryland.
"He was just a good guy," Johnston said. "Everybody liked Mike."
Down the stretch
Don Amos, chief operating officer of Magna Entertainment Corp., has taken over primary responsibility for the company's racetracks, including Pimlico and Laurel Park. Amos said that he and Jim McAlpine, Magna's president and CEO, continue to work as a team, but that McAlpine has turned his attention to other issues such as account wagering.
Despite Toccet's eighth-place finish in the Strub Stakes last weekend at Santa Anita Park, the Laurel-based colt will remain at Santa Anita for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 6, said John Scanlan, his trainer.
Tapit, the highly regarded Kentucky Derby prospect, has returned to Michael Dickinson's Tapeta Farm in Cecil County because of a sore shin. The colt had been training at Palm Meadows in South Florida and was to have made his 3-year-old debut in the Risen Star Stakes today at the Fair Grounds. Yesterday, Tapit breezed four furlongs in 52.40 seconds at Tapeta.
The Maryland Racing Media Association has selected Kicken Kris as its Maryland-based Horse of the Year for 2003. Trained by Michael Matz at Fair Hill, the turf specialist won the Grade I Secretariat Stakes and Grade III Lawrence Realization Handicap and finished second in the Virginia Derby and Grade II Jamaica Handicap and third in the Grade I Hollywood Derby. The colt, now 4, will be honored Saturday before the running of the Maryland Racing Media Handicap at Laurel.