Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Louisiana Derby Winners
For a professional racehorse trainer, Ray Handal is pretty young. He’s 27 years old and has only been training on his own for about two years. Needless to say, Handal opened some eyes when he won at Saratoga Race Course — not once, but twice.
He got on the board, winning his first ever race at Saratoga on Aug. 18, with a horse named Winter Springs. Then, on Sept. 3, Handal pulled a shocker in winning his second race of the meet (from only five starters) with 13.50-1 longshot Gentrify.
Handal wasn’t born into a racing family, but he did spend a lot of time around the track, thanks to one of his biggest influences — his father. The up-and-coming trainer talked with America’s Best Racing about how he got started in racing, his recent wins and his future goals.
America’s Best Racing: Describe what it felt like winning your first-ever race at Saratoga.
Ray Handal: Surreal. It’s something that I have dreamt about since I was a young kid, and to finally have it come true is unbelievable. We put in so much work, blood, sweat and tears. We pushed and pushed and pushed. To finally break through — and on that kind of stage — is what makes it all worth it.
ABR: Not only did you win one race but you won a second race at the end of the meet. What was that like?
RH: The first win was getting the monkey off my back and the second was icing on the cake. The second win was extra special, being that it was a horse named Gentrify. I have had that horse since the winter meet at Aqueduct and claimed him for $16,000. He had lots of nagging problems that were holding him back from his true potential. My staff and I worked hard to get him right, and we took care of him and finally did get him right. Now, he’s taking care of us and running right.
ABR: You won two races from only five starters at Saratoga. What would you attribute that success to?
RH: A great staff. We have talented people who are patient and want to work toward the same end-goal as me. These horses test you and there is always an easy way and a right way.
ABR: Tell us about how you were first exposed to racing. Where did you grow up? What were some of your earliest racing memories?
RH: My dad was a gambler and took me to the track from as early as I can remember. He is visually impaired and has a degenerative disease called retinitis pigmentosa. When I was younger, he taught me to read the [Daily] Racing Form, and as I got older his vision got worse. So, he would depend on me to help him and it became our bonding time. We spent every weekend at the racetrack. We went to Caymanas Park when I lived in Jamaica, and then when we moved back to the U.S. (when I was 11) to Plantation, Fla., we went to Calder [Race Course] and Gulfstream [Park] in the winter.
ABR: When did you know you wanted to become a trainer?
RH: As early as I can remember. From when I was a very young kid, I always dreamed of growing up and doing this.
ABR: What is it about training horses that you find most satisfying or gratifying?
RH: I love how the horses improve mentally and physically, and seeing how happy they are. I get a lot of horses in, and some can run well while others can’t. But either way they are always happy and healthy, and that’s all I can ask for.
ABR: Who are some of your influences, both inside of racing and outside?
RH: In racing, Tony Dutrow really took me under his wing when I worked for him. I explained that I wanted to train and he gave me the keys to the car and let me do my thing when I was his assistant at Aqueduct. He would give me guidance and a general way we did things, but left me to do most of the day-to-day decision-making. My dad is another person that is super influential and helps me to this day. It’s cool to get an outsider’s perspective and hear an opinion that isn’t on the track.
ABR: What would you describe as your approach to training?
RH: I like to evaluate the horses as individuals and tailor my training to the horse.
ABR: What is it like for a younger trainer trying to attract new clients and good horses?
RH: It’s very difficult. I try to reach out people through different avenues, like social media, and just make myself available for anyone interested in horse racing or anyone who has questions. It’s a tough sell, but I have won some good races on the biggest stage, so it’s a little bit easier now.
ABR: So, now that you have won two races at Saratoga, where do you go from here?
RH: I’m back at Belmont [Park] now, but I have my eye on a few races at Keeneland [Race Course] this fall. I want to take a few of my grass horses to Florida for the winter. I’ll keep my New York string at Belmont all year long though.
ABR: What are some of your immediate goals and your longer-term goals?
RH: I’m just focused on improving the horses and trying to bring in more owners that will give me the opportunity.
ABR: As a younger person in racing, what can racing do to attract new fans, and potentially trainers and other future participants in the industry?
RH: Just like I touched on earlier, being friendly to anyone who takes the time to talk horse racing; just showing people how much fun the sport is and how beautiful these horses are.