Keeping Score: The King of the Fairs rides into the sky

Published: 2/3/2017 11:16:20 PM

Good morning!

Thoroughbred trainer Carlos Figueroa passed away last month at age 88 in Salem, N.H. He was born dirt poor in Puerto Rico but lived the American dream in New England where they called him the King of the Fairs.

Figueroa had a talent for getting lame horses into the winner’s circle. “The horses always ate first,” said his longtime friend John Dobrydnio. “That guy went strong for a lot of years and we had quite a friendship.”

According to the industry source Equibase, Figueroa had 846 wins in 34 years and earned $4.1 million, but the money went faster than some of his horses. During one slump he made the Guiness Book of World Records by losing 195 races in a row.

He met his wife Pearl at Berkshire Downs where she was punching tickets. According to the Boston Globe obituary, they never had biological children but raised six kids who needed homes.

Figueroa followed the fair circuit from Brockton to Marshfield and out to Northampton and Great Barrington. He raced at Suffolk Downs, Rockingham Park and Lincoln Downs — any place he heard the bugler’s call to post.

“I’d lay hay in his stalls,” said Dobrydnio. “Everybody loved him but he was cagey. When he wanted to make a score, boy could he keep his mouth shut.

“He won an award in Boston and asked me, ‘What should I say?’”

“I said, ‘Tell ‘em you deserve it.’ He got up there you know what he said? ‘You guys from New York and Boston, you think you know everything, but my friend John over there, he come from pickle country and he wrote the book!”

Sports Editor Gary Sanderson hired Mark Durant while he was still at Greenfield High School, playing a hunch that the talkative kid with the grin and a passion for sports could do the job.

Durant was conflicted between covering sports and going to class at GCC. One day he left a class early so he could drive across the state to cover a state volleyball tournament match and that was that. “I did earn nine credits toward my associate degree,” he laughed.

After 30 years on the sports desk, Durant is retiring and will be leaving The Recorder after his final shift Tuesday night. He’ll start his next career later this month with a Las Vegas-based gaming company that is heavily involved in his other passion — poker — and he’ll will be working remotely from home, thanks to technology.

The local sports community will miss Mark, perhaps none moreso than at the Country Club of Greenfield, where for more than a quarter-century he covered the Invitational Four-Ball like it was The Masters.

Durant has been the Friday night editor since this column’s inception. His layout, copy editing and use of artwork have made it present well to the readers. That’s an editor’s job, to take a piece of writing and make it better, not worse or change it for the sake of change.

Some of his corrections saved me embarrassment, though there’s the week he forgot to run it at all. “No column today?” asked my neighbor Jim Shea.

That was a surprise, but after a mea culpa he made sure it got into Monday’s edition — complete with artwork.

Veteran sports writer Jeff Lajoie will be back for a second tour of duty, ensuring a smooth transition at the sports desk.

Safe travels Mark and take a bow, you went from being a talkative kid to a man for all seasons.

Cherry Picking: Hall of Fame thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert had a way with words describing Arrogate before last week’s Pegasus World Cup. “Bafftert says his horse is ‘Super cherry,’ that’s his term,” said NBC broadcaster Laffit Pincay Jr. “He wouldn’t bring him here if he wasn’t ‘Super cherry.”

Arrogate did indeed pick the field apart with jockey Mike Smith aboard and won by five lengths.

Bagwell’s Legacy: Stan Benjamin’s been gone for a while, but his spirit will be in Cooperstown when Jegg Bagwell’s enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer. The longtime Greenfield resident scouted for Houston, and it was on his advice that they traded for Bagwell when the Red Sox came calling for reliever Larry Andersen during their 1990 playoff run.

Bagwell was playing down the road in New Britain and Benjamin liked what he saw. He broke into the big leagues in 1991 and played at least 156 games for 10 of his 15 seasons, all with Houston. He finished with a .297 career batting average and at one time or another led the league in nine categories including runs, RBIs and slugging percentage.

Empire Building: Classic Empire is the 9-to-2 futures book favorite to win the Kentucky Derby three months from now at Churchill Downs. Horseplayers will get a look at the 3-year-old contender today at Gulfstream Park, where he’ll run in the $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes.

Classic Empire is trained by Mark Casse, whose nephew Ron Rodak owns Dimo’s Restaurant next to the Blue Heron on North Main Street in Sunderland.

Torts Dogs It: Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella missed Sunday’s NHL All Star Game for what he called a “family issue.” When fans began expressing concern and sending best wishes, “Torts” came clean with the media. He was tending to his son’s ailing 10-year-old pit bull named Emma. Nick is an Army Ranger and he got an emergency call from Uncle Sam, so his dad volunteered to look after Emma.

Squibbers: Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty told Steve Serby of the New York Post that he kept the ball he intercepted off Tom Brady in practice. “He always gets mad,” said McCourty. … Wanna bet that Brady completes his first pass tomorrow? That’ll cost $250 to make $100 in Las Vegas. … Alabama inked six five-star recruits on National Signing Day while UMass settled for eight three-star recruits and BC hauled in 16 three-star high school players. Scout ranked UMass’ recruiting class 89th overall Boston College 71st, but 247sports ranks the two schools at 107th and 67th, respectively. … Hinsdale OTB’s betting handle is up 5 percent to $1.35 million this fiscal year. The 3-year-old gaming facility is attracting former regulars from the old race track like Athol’s Bruce King. “I’m here every Saturday,” said King, who was clutching a program and a list of TVG picks last Saturday. Owner Bill Faucher said he’ll probably expand later this year and keep his fingers crossed the state legalizes slots. “If that happens I’m building up there,” he said, pointing to the property he owns behind the current facility. … Seabrook OTB’s handle is up more than 40 percent since Rockingham Park closed for good last summer. The former dog track has handled over $17.5 million in simulcast wagers since July 1. … If Tiger Woods keeps missing the cut, shouldn’t TV air just the first two rounds and forget the last two? … New Hampshire native Chris Correa wishes he grew up when hacking was nothing more than a bad cold. Temptation got the best of him when he guessed a former colleague’s password and hacked into the Houston Astros’ computer system. Now the one-time St. Louis Cardinals scouting director is serving 46 months for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. ... Deerfield grad Alex Killorn scored his 14th and 15th goals of the season — and 67th and 68th of his career — during Tampa Bay’s 4-3 loss to the Bruins on Tuesday. … Jeopardy host Alex Trebek was a presenter at the “NHL Top 100” last week in LA, where rapper Snoop Dog showed up in an Anaheim Ducks jersey. … Jim Smith brought down the house at Sunday’s get-together to honor local athletes. In 1966 at Deerfield Academy, Smitty became the first football coach to utter the line that playing to a tie is like kissing your sister. … The best two Saturdays in the history of UMass football will be Oct. 21 and 28 when the Minutemen host Georgia Southern and Appalachian State at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. Fans will sell out both games after being force-fed a diet of weakling teams like Wagner College and FIU. … UMass is also scheduled to host UConn and BYU at McGuirk the following season. … Happy birthday, Myron Dobrydnio. Your brother and Paula still love you — and so does everyone else who’s good in the world — even if you couldn’t blow out all the candles on your birthday cake.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.

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