A book with the title “The Ghost Horse – A True Story of Love, Death, and Redemption” is one that would not ordinarily interest me. But the author’s name gave me pause, so I picked it up.
Joe Layden, a New York Times best-selling author and award-winning journalist, connects on a gut level in the unvarnished story of 57-year-old, small-time race trainer Tim Snyder and a $4,500 filly Snyder named Lisa’s Booby Trap, in honor of his late wife, who had galloped horses for a living and said before she died of ovarian cancer in 2003 that she wanted to be reincarnated as a horse.
“Horse racing is not so much a business as it is a calling,” notes Layden. “The work requires too much time and energy to pursue it with anything less than utter passion; and even then, the odds against success can seem practically insurmountable. But for those who are drawn into the game, particularly at a young age, success and failure are almost irrelevant. Theirs is an obsession that must be fed, often without regard to the usual societal constraints, or the expectations set forth by family and friends.”
Such was the case of Snyder, a jockey’s son born in the first-aid station at a small Massachusetts racetrack, always on the lookout for a big break, but nevertheless the practical philosopher.
“For most of us it’s a really rough life,” Snyder told Layden. “It doesn’t matter how pretty they are, they’re still horses, and what goes on in the barn in the morning is what really matters. All that other stuff – the braided tail, the colorful silks, the guy wearing a suit in the paddock, in the afternoon, before the race? That’s all window dressing.”
Unlike Snyder’s unceremonious backside birth, Lisa’s Booby Trap was bred and raised at Florida’s prestigious Ocala Stud and nominated at birth to the Breeders’ Cup. But as an early 2-year-old, she showed little promise and Ocala Stud handed her off to horse broker John Shaw.
“She was a good-looking horse, big and strong, with a decent pedigree,” Shaw told Layden. “Not great, but respectable. But when I tried to work her? Jesus Christmas, she was slow. I practically had to time this horse with a sundial. It was ridiculous.”
Shaw, in turn, handed the filly over to another broker, Don Hunt. “My deal with Don was ‘Come and get her, try to do something with her. I gotta tell you though, she’s so slow you have to mark the ground to make sure she’s moving.”
Ultimately, the filly ended up with Snyder, who paid $2,000 down, with a promise to remit the remaining $2,500 from her earnings. In her first start, at Finger Lakes Racetrack, where Snyder camped out in a tack room, Lisa’s Booby Trap won a maiden special weight by 17¾ lengths, After her second start, won by 10½ lengths, Snyder was offered $50,000 for Lisa’s Booby Trap, but turned it down. He did the same when offered $125,000, following her third start, which she won by 8½ lengths.
From Finger Lakes it was on to renowned Saratoga Race Course, where Lisa’s Booby Trap won $42,000, as the six-length winner of the Loudonville Stakes. By now the all but throw-away filly had won four races out of four starts, by a total of 42½ lengths. And her story had just begun.
“Breeding is as much about hope and luck as it is science,” says Layden, a longtime racing fan. “You throw all that DNA into a blender and hit the switch, and then you stand back and let nature take its course.”
Or perhaps, as in the case of Lisa’s Booby Trap, let love takes its course.
“I don’t really believe so much in reincarnation,” Snyder has been quoted as saying. “It’s a big word, you know what I mean? But, there are a lot of things in this horse that resemble my wife.”