When Larry Barrera was just a kid growing up in Valley Stream, N.Y., he used to dream of becoming a baseball player or a jockey. His mother remembers him wearing out the arm of the family sofa pretending it was his horse. Then on Saturdays Larry took to going to the track with his older brother, Albert, and father, Laz Barrera, for the last five years the biggest money-winning thoroughbred trainer in U.S. racing. “I couldn’t believe my father made a living from horses,” says Larry with a grin. “It seemed too easy. I knew I wanted to do it, too.”
Now Larry has. At 21, he is one of the youngest trainers in the country, and this weekend he is expected to saddle his first horse in the Kentucky Derby. “Just having a horse in the Derby is a thrill,” he allows. “I know that it’s all racing luck, but I feel sure I’ve got a winner.”
The betting public disagrees. Larry’s colt, Flying Nashua (owned by a group headed by Los Angeles surgeon Dr. Ulf Jensen), looks like a 10-to-1 outsider against the early line favorites, Pleasant Colony, Tap Shoes and Proud Appeal. Brother Albert, 27, also has a long shot in the race, Pass the Tab (15 to 1). But the Barreras should never be disregarded. Father Laz, 56, who won $3 million in purses last year (trainers get 10 percent), has saddled two Kentucky Derby winners, Bold Forbes in 1976 and Triple Crown champ Affirmed in 1978.
The youngest of the three Barrera children, Larry graduated from high school in 1977, then earned his trainer’s license at the extremely young age of 18. “I didn’t see any point in going to college,” he says. “Every time I had a book there was a racing form in it.” The following year Larry was given his first stable of three horses by his father—and in his first race saddled a 35-to-1 shot and won. In the winter of 1979 he moved to California to work for his father full-time—”Every day I followed him like I was his shadow,” recalls Larry. “I was his eyes and ears for a while, and we were pretty successful.”
With his career beginning to take off, Larry moved into an apartment/with jockey Steve Cauthen, who had ridden Affirmed the year before. “It was tough to live with someone that successful,” Larry jokes. “His salary was $600,000 and mine was $20,000. Guess which one of us had trouble coming up with the rent.”
Now Larry lives in Arcadia, Calif., near Santa Anita, where his 20-horse stable grossed $900,000 in purses last year, training for clients like actor John Forsythe, Jimmy the Greek Snyder and financier Louis Wolfson. He rents a modest two-bedroom apartment with girlfriend April Doornbos, 26, an exercise rider he met in New York, and drives a black Toyota to the track every morning for the 6 a.m. workouts.
“It’s a 24-hour job,” Larry says. “There’s not a waking minute I’m not thinking of my horses.” He travels about 50,000 miles a year to various race meets and employs up to 30 people in peak periods. No time is more crucial than the days leading up to the Derby at Louisville’s Churchill Downs, and the field of hopefuls diminishes rapidly. One of Larry’s 1981 contenders, A Run, finished second in the Louisiana Derby but developed a slight fever, and Barrera reluctantly scratched him. The ideal tightening race for Flying Nashua, Larry decided, was the one-mile Stepping Stone Purse at Churchill Downs, a week before the Derby.
“People ask me if I’m concerned about someone so young taking care of my horses,” says A Run’s owner, Oregon lumberman Aaron Jones. “Larry’s one of the best students in the business—and he soaked up what his father does.” But the ultimate accolade comes from the proud papa, Laz Barrera. “Larry,” he says with paternal pride, “is doing a hell of a job.”