Long before the starting gates opened Saturday evening for the 143rd Preakness, even before the majority of the fans expected to pack Pimlico Race Course arrived for the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, the biggest moment of Noah Abramson’s burgeoning career as a trainer took shape.
It happened Saturday morning, in the second race on Preakness Day, a $52,000 allowance race, where a 4-year-old filly named Conjecture who Abramson and a few investors claimed for $16,000 last fall went off as the even-money favorite in a field reduced to four starters because of the muddy track.
“It’s neat, it’s fun,” Abramson, 26, said as he stood trackside shortly before the race began. “I have a horse on Preakness Day. The crowd, the paddock here, it’s definitely unique inside and I’m enjoying it, the horse is enjoying it. It’s exciting. It’ll be more exciting if we’re in the winner’s circle.”
A few minutes later, Abramson and a boisterous group of friends and family, including his father Allan and mother Holli, crowded together for a winner’s circle picture with Conjecture and jockey Gilberto Delgado. Though he has only been a trainer for a little over a year, the road from Howard County had been long.
Conjecture, who had never won in nine races before Abramson began training her, led wire-to-wire to win for the fourth time in the nine races they’ve been together. While the six-length victory was not impressive when Conjecture won by 10 lengths at Laurel in their first race, it was certainly the highlight so far.
“It feels amazing, it doesn’t get too much better than to have a win on Preakness Day, first Preakness as a trainer,” said Abramson, who grew up in Glenwood and graduated from Glenelg High. “I was nervous, I was really nervous. But I knew she was training great and she loves the slop.”
Called a “horse whisperer like Robert Redford” by his father, Allan, the younger Abramson has made quite an impact in his first full year training thoroughbreds. His horses won five of 17 starts last year and finished in the money in 65 percent of the races in which he entered.
Though the percentages have fallen so far this year — only two wins in 21 starts and finishing in the money at a 38 percent clip before Saturday’s victory — much of it has to do with the fact that Abramson is trying to push them into more competitive and more lucrative races.
Asked if he has the talent to talk to his horses, Abramson said, “There’s a talent to being able to listen to a horse and decide on what they need to make them do their best. That’s where everything comes in. That’s where training comes in. That’s the biggest part about it. … Horses can’t speak, but they are speaking with their actions and how they’re acting.”
Steve Knight, of Ellicott City, whose Harbortown Stable co-owns Conjecture, said Abramson is a perfect example of one of the sport’s old adages.
“There’s a saying in this game, it’s all about picking your spots,” said Knight, who also owns, Temple Sky, the first horse Abramson ever trained. “He has an affinity for putting the right horse in the right spot — not setting them up too high, not setting them too low. He’s definitely on his way up.”
Abramson said the years he spent competing as a show jumper, from ages 10 to 16, and later teaching others in the sport while training horses for equestrian competitions, has helped him in the transtion to thoroughbred racing. The transition began after Abramson was forced to abandon his first career.
It came around the time the stock market crashed and his father, who had a successful scrap metal business and dabbled in real estate, was unable to properly fund a career that typically is geared toward the rich and famous. Among Abramson’s show-jumping rivals growing up were the offspring of rock icon Bruce Springsteen and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“Every week I was at a horse show,” Abramson said. “They’d see me at school Monday and Tuesday, and after that they’d say, ‘Where’s Noah?’ Showing every weekend was a blast, but when the market went downhill I went from showing at the top level with the Springsteens and Bloombergs to maybe showing once every other month.”
After using the Woodbine farm belonging to Carol Kaye — the ex-wife of respected local thoroughbred trainer Carlos Garcia — to train show-jumping horses and teach aspiring show jumpers, Abramson started breaking three of Kaye’s young racehorses.
When they were ready to run last year, Kaye gave him a chance to train them.
Temple Sky won his first race as a 15-1 long shot. Another of the horses, Davy’s Fancy, paid $61 when he won his first race, too, at 25-1. While Abramson knew a lot about horses, veteran trainer Tony Aguirre said Friday that Abramson had a lot to learn about horse racing.
“He was doing the show world, where you’re riding for a ribbon. So he has the riding ability, he has the horsemanship to transition, but there were a lot of things that he didn’t know that were really foreign to him,” Aguirre said. “Trust me, there were a million questions. ‘What do we use this for? Why do we do that?’ ”
Aguirre said it contributed to Abramson failing the test for his trainer’s license the first time.
“It was not because he was a bad horseman. He didn’t know the simple names for things,” said Aguirre, who needed nearly 5 hours to pass the test more than 20 years ago. “He didn’t know what the assistant starter was on the gate crew. He just knew him as ‘the gate guy.’ The things that had to do with the horse, he’s got. He didn’t know what the burr was.”
Aguirre had advised Abramson to work for a more experienced trainer longer before going out on his own, as Aguirre did in working for Maryland trainers Dale Capuano and Graham Motion before going out at a similar age. So did Kaye, who said Thursday, “It’s a hard road to hoe. He has a long way to go.”
Abramson said he has had the opportunity to work for more seasoned trainers, but prefers to try to make it on his own for now.
“I’ve always wanted to do my own thing, even when I was doing the show jumpers,” Abramson said. “I had opportunities to go to New York or Florida and be an assistant for a big-name trainer — multiple opportunities. The same thing with this. … I tell them the same thing I tell everybody, ‘So far everything’s going all right for me and I’m just building it up little by little. I want to see how good I can be being my own trainer.’ ”
Knowing that former show-jumping riders and trainers Rodney Jenkins and Michael Matz made the same transition with resounding success is a confidence boost for Abramson. Abramson said when he was 15, he was told by George Morris, the former head of the United States Equestrian Federation, that the teenager’s work ethic was reminiscent of Matz’s.
“It certainly helps because you know how to take care of a horse a little better, you know how to treat the horse a little bit differently. You see a different aspect of it,” Abramson said. “There’s a lot of good things show jumpers do. They take care of horses well. Their horses are always looking good. Show-jumping trainers always rode. You get to learn the feel of a horse, how they move. It all carries over to how they run on the racetrack.”
Earlier this week, Abramson met a reporter and photographer near the stakes barn at a time when legendary trainers Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas were quietly chatting in the corner of the shedrow. Abramson then returned to his more dilapidated barn on the far end of the track.
“Where Bob Baffert was standing over there, that’s where I want to be,” Abramson said. “I’ve made so many connections over the past year, it’s only going up, not down. We’re headed in the right direction The horses are getting better and better. The races are getting better. I’m not running in $5,000 claiming races — I’m racing in allowance races and maiden special races.”