Trainer Leah Gyarmati hard to outsmart

Updated: November 30, 2000, 5:47 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Trainer Leah Gyarmati insists she's not an egghead. "I can cuss with the best of them," Gyarmati joked. "And I drink beer."

I thought it was something I could do well and I could do it right. ”
— Trainer Leah Gyarmati
In those two respects, she fits in fine on the backstretch, a hard place dominated by grizzled men who got their education on the racetrack. But in many other ways, Gyarmati is a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. After all, just how many people are walking around the backstretch with Master's Degrees in Theology? So she's smart. Can she train? It appears that she can. Training for less than two years, Gyarmati has built up an 18-horse stable and is winning at a creditable rate of 13 percent. On Saturday at Aqueduct, she will try to add an important milestone to her resume when sending out Top Official in the Queens County Handicap. Beaten just a nose in the Stuyvesant Handicap in his last start, Top Official could give Gyarmati her first graded stakes winner. Her circuitous route to the Grade III Queens County began 19 years ago when the Queens native and recent high school graduate took a job galloping horses for trainer Allen Jerkens. She stayed with Jerkens for eight years before deciding to pursue her education. She enrolled at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, where she got an undergraduate degree and then her Master's Degree. Wanting to become a college professor, she went next to Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, where she began working toward a Ph. D. That brought her closer to home and back under the Jerkens fold. She began galloping horses again for Jerkens in the mornings while going to school in the afternoon. Things were going along just fine until Jerkens came up with an idea that would change the course of her life. A trainer who loves to ride unheralded jockeys, he told Gyarmati she could ride a few of his horses in the afternoon. Before she knew it, the aspiring college professor was a ten-pound bug. "He said to me, 'You always wanted to ride when you were a kid. You want to ride a race?'," she said. "It was kind of a lark, but I said, 'Okay, put me on.'" Jerkens put her on a horse named Forest Lover for an April 26, 1997 race at Aqueduct. Less than a month later and aboard the same horse, she recorded her first win as a jockey. So much for her education. "I thought, 'Oh, wow, I can do this,'" she said. Not exactly. Gyramati was 33 at the time, much too old to be an apprentice and felt she couldn't leave New York and try a lesser circuit because that wouldn't be the right thing to do for her daughter. It was very difficult under those circumstances to compete against some of the best jockeys in the world. She stuck it out for about 18 months and won 15 races during her days as a jockey. And just as she stumbled into a riding career, her becoming a trainer was not by design. She was interested in going to law school and becoming an attorney specializing in women's issues, which led her to a lunch meeting with some women in that field. It just so happen that her lunch partners were racing fans and were interested in owning a couple of inexpensive horses. One thing led to another and the group acquired a horse named Flippy Diane. In her first start for Gyarmati she finished second in a $50,000 claimer in a July 17, 1999 race at Saratoga. Next out, she won the Maryland Million Distaff. So much for going to law school. The racetrack is a place where momentum means everything and Gyarmati suddenly had it. People had noticed her work with Flippy Diane and some were willing to give her the chance she never got as a jockey. "If you start out on the right foot at the racetrack, it's great," she said. "If you start out on the wrong foot, it's not. Being a jockey, I was never in a position to do it the way it needed to be done in order to succeed. With the training, I was more in a position to do that. As soon as it went well from the beginning, I thought it was something I could do well and I could do it right." Some of her best work has come with Top Official. Though the horse had a 2-for-21 lifetime record, Gyarmati claimed the son of In The Slammer for $40,000 last year at Aqueduct for Jim Bissett, who is jockey Diane Nelson's father. At first it seemed like a mistake. Gyarmati discovered that the horse had a fractured cannon bone and that he would need a long vacation. Top Official returned June 25 and has since won two allowance races for Gyarmati and jockey Nelson before just missing in the Stuyvesant. "I never thought he'd be this good," Gyarmati said. "I thought he'd be competitive at the level we claimed him. I think the difference has been stretching him out; that's when he showed his talent." Saturday's race will be an important event for Gyarmati, but she doesn't consider it a career maker. She knows that she's got a lot more to prove and has to do it over time. "It hasn't really happened for me yet, at least in my mind," she said. "I'm not convinced that I've crossed the line yet. Maybe you're never convinced of that, maybe if you are convinced of that you are in trouble. I'm trying to get going. I'm getting my first chance of growing and if I don't succeed at this now with the horses I have it could all disappear tomorrow. It's that simple." But despite her cautious outlook on her initial success, she says she's in the training business for the long haul. Her many diplomas will start collecting dust, perhaps to be replaced by a room full of winner's circle photos. Young and still relatively inexperienced, she may not be the very best trainer on the NYRA backstretch, but this much seems certain: no one will ever outsmart her.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com