Bruce Levine has waited three decades for a horse like Buddy's Saint, so one can understand his exuberance when he says, "I ain't leaving his side."
Levine is trading in his gloves, scarves, and long johns required to endure a New York winter for sunscreen, sunglasses, and short-sleeve shirts required to enjoy a south Florida winter at Gulfstream Park. He maintains a string of about 70 horses with a trio of assistants during the winter at Aqueduct, where he is a perennial top-five trainer, but this winter he has a dozen horses at Gulfstream. Leading the list, of course, is Buddy's Saint, whom Levine hopes to develop into a top contender for the May 1 Kentucky Derby, the race at the top of his and virtually every other trainer's bucket list.
"The dream is to win the Derby," Levine said recently on a 16-degree morning at Aqueduct. "I think most trainers would be excited; at least I am."
Levine and his owner Eli Lomita have every reason to be excited. Buddy's Saint, a son of 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam, has crossed the finish line first in all three of his starts, although he was disqualified from a debut maiden win for leaning on another horse in the stretch. Since then, Buddy's Saint has won the Grade 2 Nashua and Grade 2 Remsen -- both at Aqueduct -- by a combined 16 3/4 lengths.
Of the six previous 2-year-olds who won the Nashua and Remsen, five went on to win Grade 1 races at 3, including Pine Bluff, who won the 1992 Preakness, and Bluegrass Cat, who was second in the 2006 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes and won the Haskell. Buddy's Saint is expected to make his
3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream on Feb. 20.
"I wouldn't trade places with anyone in America," Levine said in the winner's circle after Buddy's Saint won the Remsen on Nov. 28.
Although Levine had a Preakness runner in Koluctoo Jimmy Al, who finished 10th of 12 in 1993, this will be his first true chance at the Triple Crown races, a shot he has been waiting for since he took out his trainer's license in 1979.
Levine, 54, is a native New Yorker, growing up in Queens before moving to Long Island, not far from Belmont Park. His father, Robert, was a businessman who worked in the city before taking out a trainer's license when he was 64. Robert Levine, who died in 2005, was a horseplayer who would bring Bruce to the track on Saturdays.
"If I missed the double, I didn't want to go," Bruce Levine said. "It was my only shot to make a score."
Levine said he knew at an early age he wanted to work in the racing industry, but his parents required him to finish college. Levine studied business at the University of Miami. He went to class during the week, the track on weekends.
"I came home Thanksgiving the first [year] and then I never came back [home]," Levine said. "When school would close, I'd go to the track every day."
While in college, Levine worked one summer for John Russell, who was training for the Phipps family. After college, Levine worked for John Campo Sr. for about three years, but not when Campo trained champion 2-year-old colt Protagonist and 2-year-old filly Talking Picture in 1973 or when Campo won the Kentucky Derby with Pleasant Colony in 1981. But he said he learned a lot from Campo, who died in 2005.
"He was really good with the babies and good with the cripples," Levine said. "He was a whiz with the claiming horses."
In the winter of 1979, Levine took out his trainer's license, claiming I'm It for $18,000. Two months later, I'm It won the Grade 3 Grey Lag Handicap. It was a precursor to what has been the hallmark of Levine's career. He developed a reputation as a sharp claiming trainer, turning many claimers into stakes horses. Among them were Coyote Lakes, Temporary Saint, Not So Fast, Aavelord, and Clever Electrician.
As he built his business primarily with claiming horses in the 1980s, Levine also had a handful of stakes horses such as Lady Eleanor (winner of the 1982 Delaware Oaks and Cotillion), Koluctoo's Jill (1985 Ashland and Black-Eyed Susan), and Spring Beauty (1987 Barbara Fritchie). While many of his better horses were owned by his father and uncles, Levine picked up some Kentucky-based clients, notably through David Greathouse of Glencrest Farm.
"When Kentucky racing was doing bad, he sent me a lot of fillies to get black type," Levine said. "I picked up some really nice clients because of him; that was really a big boost."
Toward the end of the 1980s, when Kentucky racing began to improve and the economy worsened, Levine's business began to slump. By the early 1990s, he was low on horses, and in 1991 he won with only 7 percent of his starters. In the mid-90s, Levine was introduced to Roddy Valente, an upstate New Yorker who owned a small gravel company. Valente said he gave Levine three horses, bringing the stable up to seven.
"He was mucking stalls at the time," Valente said. "The help never showed up. I loved his work ethic. He grew up like I did. My business, I started with nothing. You have to make every day count and every minute count. If it doesn't get done by somebody else, you've got to do it yourself. All this guy did was remind me of myself."
Another example of Levine's dedication came in 1995. He and his wife, Debra, got married on a dark day at the town hall in Saratoga and honeymooned that afternoon in Lake George. Levine was back to work the following morning.
Together, Valente and Levine won three consecutive runnings of the Gallant Fox with Coyote Lakes, whom they claimed for $50,000. They also won the Gallant Fox with Aavelord, another claim. Valente bred and owned Bustin Stones, a New York-bred who gave Levine his first Grade 1 victory in the 2008 Carter Handicap and who retired undefeated.
"The best thing that happened with us, he won his first Grade 1 with me," Valente said.
Levine's business took off, buoyed by his success with Valente. NYRA allotted him stalls at Belmont in 1999, which also helped his business. He had previously been stabled at Aqueduct.
"A lot of people don't want to send horses to Aqueduct," Levine said. "It has a little stigma to it, so coming over here helped. Earle Mack gave me horses; I know he wouldn't have given them to me if I was at Aqueduct. I've had people call up, and I'd say, 'Send the horses to Aqueduct,' and they wouldn't show up, or they'd be like, 'I'll get back to you,' and I never heard from them again."
By 2002, Levine's stable had grown to the point where he opened a second division at Monmouth Park. After three runner-up finishes, Levine won the trainers' title there in 2008 and 2009. He won the Meadowlands title in 2007. In 2008, Levine won a career-best 188 races, eighth in the nation, and his purse earnings of $6.56 million ranked 16th. In 2009, Levine won 143 races, 16th-best in the nation, and his horses earned purses of $4.84 million, 21st in the nation.
Another client responsible for Levine's success was Mike Repole, the co-founder of the company that produced Vitamin Water. Repole hooked up with Levine about four years ago, and the two have had a strong run. Repole was the leading owner on the New York Racing Association circuit in 2009 with 51 victories. Although Repole employs four trainers, he has 15 to 20 horses with Levine, from claimers to the maiden 3-year-old Winaholic, a son of Tiznow who Repole thinks could be special.
"In the early days, I used to hear Bruce was just a claiming trainer," Repole said. "Over the last couple of years, I think he's proven that with the right stock, whether it's a $7,500 claimer or a $300,000 yearling, he can get results."
With success always comes suspicion. Midway through the 2008 Monmouth meet - when Levine won with 27 of 56 starters - the New Jersey Racing Commission ordered that all 41 of his horses be tested for erythropoietin, or EPO, the hormone that stimulates production of oxygen-rich red blood cells and can enhance peformance. All tests came back clean.
"That's fine, I've got no problem with it," Levine said. "Somebody's policing the sport. That's good. Believe me, I knew if someone didn't get to one of my horses I was fine. You never know in this game. Then they told me they were testing for EPO. I said I'm too cheap to use EPO; that's expensive. I said, 'You think I'm going to buy that?' "
Levine continued to do well with claimers and New York-breds, but he was always hopeful someone would give him the opportunity with young horses. Enter Lomita, who runs under the name Kingfield Stables. A clothes manufacturer based in New York City, Lomita had been in the game on a cheaper level in the 1970s but got out. He was familiar with Levine but never had horses with him. When he decided to return to racing, Lomita said he called two other trainers, both of whom turned him down, before he contacted Levine.
For the last five years, Lomita has given Levine $500,000 annually to purchase yearlings at the Keeneland September auction. In 2005, Levine paid $435,000 for a son of Distorted Humor. That horse turned out to be Buddy's Humor, who has won 5 of 17 starts, including the Grade 3 Pan American at Gulfstream. Buddy's Humor is back in training after wrenching an ankle last year and is likely to return at the 2010 Gulfstream meet.
Other purchases did not turn out as well. Buddy's Holiday, a $140,000 yearling purchase in 2006, has 1 win from 11 starts and has earned $72,279. Buddy's Song, a $180,000 yearling purchase in 2007, is 1 for 12 and was entered to run Thursday in a first-level allowance race at Aqueduct.
In 2008, Levine purchased two yearlings for Lomita. One, a son of Empire Maker who cost $150,000, suffered an infection in a hind leg after an accident and had to be euthanized. The other, a son of first-crop sire Saint Liam, turned out to be Buddy's Saint. Levine said he was willing to take a chance on a son of Saint Liam because Saint Liam won the Breeders' Cup Classic at 1 1/4 miles and was a son of Saint Ballado, of whom Levine was a fan. The dam, Tuzia, finished second in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga and produced 2003 Preakness runner-up Midway Road.
"I didn't think I was going to have to pay as much as I gave -- $100,000 -- but I'd have gone higher because I was only going to bid on a couple of horses, and he was one I picked," Levine said.
Levine said he is selective when he attends horse auctions. He won't look at a horse unless there is some pedigree.
"He's got to be somebody out of somebody," Levine said. "It could be the most gorgeous looking horse in the world -- I don't want him. They've got to have a catalog page."
Lomita, who uses the moniker Buddy for all his horses - he has a dog named Buddy - was offered millions of dollars for Buddy's Saint before and after the Remsen. He has turned down all offers. One reason, he said, is out of respect for Levine. Usually, when someone buys a horse, they move him to a different trainer.
"That's one of the reasons I didn't sell him," said Lomita, 76. "I don't want him out of the picture. It's a dream for me, it's a dream for him. Bruce is special to me. Naturally, the horse is special to me.''
Levine probably would have been handsomely compensated from any sale, but he said he is happy Lomita kept the colt.
"I waited 30 years for this horse," Levine said. "And he's here."