When Gerry Sarama drove horses for a living, he was one of the best. Now that he's concentrating on being a full-time trainer, he's earning the same reputation.
Long-time Western New York horseplayers remember Sarama as a rookie phenom, a skinny kid who dominated the driver standings at Buffalo Raceway and Batavia Downs back in the late 1970s and early '80s before leaving the area for greener pastures.
The kid is 66 now and hasn't driven in a competitive race since last summer.
But while he's tapered his driving to almost zero (He made four starts in 2008 and one -- behind a pacing mare named Lafawnduh -- resulted in his 2,630th career win), Sarama has ramped up his training career.
Today he's the boss of a 19-horse, five-employee stable tucked into a corner of Barn 11-A at Buffalo Raceway. With five wins in 12 starts at the end of last week, he also fit nicely in second place in the trainer standings when measured by percentage, tied for sixth in total wins.
"I thought we should have had a better start," joked Sarama, implying that with a little luck his two seconds and a third could also have been winners.
"There wasn't enough time [in the six weeks between the Batavia and Buffalo seasons] to give them a month off and bring them back. So we tried to replace them with new ones," he said.
This winter, the best horse in Sarama's barn has been a recent acquisition named Control Freak, a 6-year-old gelding pacer who's already got two wins and a second under his girth, all against $15,000 claiming horses.
Last Saturday night, Control Freak, usually a come-from-behind horse, paced the then second-fastest mile of the meet (1:58 3/5 ). He led all the way and paced the final quarter in 28 3/5 while fending off Hummer N, who had defeated him the previous week.
"They said he can't reach the front, but he reached the front right over here. . . . He raced good on the front," Sarama said.
Control Freak, like many of the horses Sarama trains, was driven by Tom Agosti, a multitalented horseman who is concentrating on the harness game after several years as a thoroughbred trainer.
Sarama said he often employs either Agosti or Kevin Cummings to drive his horses.
"I think Tom is the smartest driver out there. But he's not a power driver," Sarama said. "Kevin is a power driver. . . . Tommy's more conservative. Tommy drives very smart, he brings the horse back in one piece."
Agosti returns the favor. He said Sarama is "great to drive for" and never second-guesses his drivers after a race.
"He's like 'Here: do what you gotta do,' " Agosti said. "He knows you can't look at a program and say, 'Do this,' because when the gate opens you never know what's going to happen."
Cummings drove Precious Revenge, Sarama's other two-time winner this season, to a pair of victories and a close second. Last Saturday, the 7-year-old gelding was claimed away for $10,000 by a client of trainer Bob Gruber.
"We'll pick up another one," said Sarama, who is used to being a frequent claimer and claimee.
Sarama's main owner is Michael L. Torcello of Hamburg, who owned Precious Revenge with Marc Vogel and Scott Wagner. All are hands-on owners who are constantly scouting for fresh stock.
"Mike's my main man. . . . I have to look at them, but he suggests this horse, that horse. I check them out," Sarama said.
The same trio purchased Control Freak privately in Canada and claimed Precious Revenge last October when he was sent to Batavia by top New Jersey trainer Mickey Burke. They most recently claimed Itz Spanky Boy for $6,000.
Sarama says he misses driving but is enjoying the learning experience of training. The numbers show he is getting better with time.
Sarama has been in the top 10 in the trainer standings in each of the four Western New York meets over the past two years. After finishing 10th at Buffalo Raceway and tied for eighth at Batavia Downs in 2007, he stepped up in 2008 and finished fourth at Buffalo (35 wins in 197 starts) and fifth at Batavia (26 for 167).
According to the U.S. Trotting Association, in 2007 Sarama trained 51 winners in 309 races for purse earnings of $243,226. Last year, his horses won 62 of 377 and earned $270,526.
"It's different [training than driving] for sure," Sarama said.
"I liked the driving part, it was easy money (his horses earned $11.4 million). I was a good driver, that's all I wanted to do. I didn't want to work," he joked.
"There's a lot more work [to training] than you realize. There's more to it than just driving the horse to train it. There's shoeing and vets and all this other nonsense. Coggins tests and changing papers, it drives you crazy. . . . A horse goes lame, you try to fix it. I've got to try to help every horse. Every day I keep on top of every horse. . . . It's 2 4/7 for sure. Horses die, they get sick, everything."
Sarama hopes the best is yet to come.
He rattles off a list of good horses still on his bench.
"I've got Overseas Tour and Coit Hanover and Mud Puppy. There's Fire And Art. . . . and Gamesmanship, for sure."
They sound like names to remember.