As the Saratoga Race Course season ends its 2020 season, James W. Ferraro is also wrapping up his 30th year as a trainer at the track. While he may not be a household name to current horse racing fans, he does come from a unique horse racing background that does merit some attention.
His father – James Ferraro – was a trainer and later a bloodstock agent, as well as a close friend to late Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens, often known as “The Chief.” Because of that, the younger Ferraro had good insight on training horses.
“My father and him were good friends,” he said. “Some of my best memories are going out to dinner with them and listen to them talk about training philosophies, taking care of horses, how to handle certain problems, and what to do about them.”
After spending his teenage years by helping his father train horses, Ferraro eventually became a stablehand for Jerkens from 1974-1977. At that point, “The Chief” thought it was time for Ferraro to train horses on his own.
“He said get out there and learn now,” Ferraro said. “His theory was go out there and start training because you are going to make the same mistakes now that you will also make five years from now. I learned that from both my father and the Chief. I knew I could always go back to them for advice.”
As soon as he got his trainer’s license, Ferraro saddled his first winner with a maiden claimer coincidently named Talking Partner on Dec. 20, 1977 at Aqueduct, which has been part of his home base for over three decades.
Ferraro’s thought of coming to Saratoga didn’t happen until three years later after his first winner. When Ferraro came to Saratoga, he made it worth the trip with just two horses: Lorine who finished first and second in two claiming races, and Table for John, who was second twice in an allowance race.
While Ferraro continued to train horses throughout the 1980s, his father stopped training horses to become a bloodstock agent.
It has been reported that his father was the one who helped Sam Rubin purchase the great Hall of Fame gelding John Henry for $25,000. Later, John Henry earned several accolades that include becoming the oldest horse to win the Eclipse Award for Horse and a Grade 1 race at the age of 9 in 1984 after earning the same honor in 1981.
Over the years, the younger Ferraro has posted a respectable career with more than 300 winners and earnings over $11 million from horses that include New York-bred stakes-winning mares Double Dee’s, Board Elligible and Aunt Babe. However, there is still a mare who has Ferraro’s memory: Courageous Karen, whose 2-of-10 career wins came at Saratoga.
Even though she never won a stakes race, Courageous Karen was a versatile mare on both turf and off track. In fact, Ferraro recalls one moment at Saratoga where she dominated an off-the-turf event in 1988.
“We had shipped up here a day before the race, which was supposed to be on the turf,” Ferraro said. “That night, it started downpouring. That filly won on the turf, but she loved the mud, too. Once that race came off the turf, she took off and won. I still remember that race well.”
Today at 64-years-old, Ferraro believes his “old school” style of training is still effective for his stable, just as he learned from his father and “The Chief.” However, he doesn’t dismiss some of today’s technology and science that can benefit horses.
“That was definitely old school then with the way they took care of problems with the horses,” Ferraro said about their approach to training horses. “Years ago, you were able to give horses time. You didn’t necessarily rely so much on the veterinarians. I’m not closed-minded. I try to mix it up a little bit. You have to still use technology and modern medications.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March that halted New York racing, it seemed like things were moving forward for Ferraro as his horses found the Winner’s Circle at Aqueduct five times while finishing in-the-money 10 other times. However, with New York racing not resuming until the beginning of June at Belmont, some of his horses were kept on idle.
“Some of my horses were taken out of training and they lost all of that conditioning,” he said. “All we did was hand-walk them for 45 days. That’s kind of frustrating because you see the track right there and you are losing conditioning every day.”
Now that racing has resumed, Ferraro’s horses have gotten back into shape with two of them winning near the end of the Belmont meet and Bank Gala winning her first career race halfway through the Saratoga meet.
“We had a slow start at Belmont, then we picked up a couple of wins during the last week,” Ferraro said. “Saratoga is nearly impossible to win up here, especially with small stables.”
As challenging as it may be to compete at Saratoga, Ferraro, who is on multiple committees for the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association that include backstretch and safety, as well as a representative for the trainers, still enjoys the scene and people around the Saratoga backstretch.
“Saratoga is fantastic,” he said. “A lot of people say the same thing. It’s that banter. Even though we are very competitive, we are close-knit. We rekindle friendships. It’s that comradery.”