Winningest trainer is ready for track's 60th year
by: Jim CLARK, Horse trainer Jim Fergason broke his own record for track wins last season.

Horse trainer Jim Fergason is pretty proud of his 2005 season, and he doesn't see anybody duplicating his achievement anytime soon.

There were about 700 races last season at Portland Meadows and his horses won 67 of them, by far the track record.

'That leaves 90 percent for everybody else to split up,' he says, beaming.

Fergason, a Clark County, Wash., resident who started training horses at Portland Meadows in 1972, held the previous record of 50 wins.

'I'd love to do it again, but I don't think it'll happen. That was a phenomenal year,' says Fergason, who also surpassed 700 career wins last season. 'I don't think anybody will do it for a number of years.'

It won't be for lack of trying. For years, many owners have entrusted Fergason with their horses, and he has bred and purchased many of his own.

His 259 starts last year led all stables, topping rivals Ben Root of Newberg and Nick Lowe of Ridgefield, Wash. Fergason expects to put about 20 horses into the gates for Sunday's opening day at Portland Meadows, which includes the $20,000 Inaugural Handicap.

The 60th season of Meadows racing runs through May 5, with racing every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Officials expect purses to increase 21 percent, based on many factors, including more mutuel wagering anticipated from simulcast betting on Mondays and Tuesdays - because not many venues across the country conduct racing on those days.

More money means happier owners, trainers, jockeys and other horse people, many of whom compete in the summer meet at Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash., before moving to the winter meet in Portland.

How to play the claiming game

Throughout the season, Fergason will be training about 40 horses at any given time. He and the likes of the Root family, Lowe and Jonathan Nance are considered the pre-eminent trainers at Portland Meadows because they know how to play the claiming game.

About 90 percent of races at Portland Meadows are claiming races. Owners can stake claims on any horse and purchase them 15 minutes before the start of the race.

Claiming race 'conditions' are based on sales prices ranging from $2,500 to $16,000, age of the horse and how many races they have won - 'maiden' races include horses that have not won. Most of the Meadows races are $2,500 to $4,000 - about 70 percent - although Kohls says the track wants to increase the $5,000 and other mid-level claiming races. Portland Meadows also features Oregon-bred events with bonuses.

Last year, Fergason claimed a horse for $15,000 at Emerald Downs and brought him to Portland. The 7-year-old gelding, Colony Lane, proceeded to win seven consecutive races and make Fergason and his owner $34,000.

Fergason once claimed a horse for $7,500 and sold it for $12,500, but he picked up another horse for $15,000 and wound up happy to get rid of it for $2,500. 'It was a bad horse,' he says.

'It's skill, and all timing,' he says of the claiming game. 'Know when to get in and know when to get out. You can make money. When there's a lot of claiming going on, it's a good meet for everybody.'

It helps to know the horse

He has many clients, including local owners Art McFadden, Stub Johnson and Mike Malarkey. It is with Malarkey's 2-year-old gelding Timely Reaction that Fergason hopes to hit it big this season.

Owners usually put their faith in trainers to know when to buy or sell and which races to enter with a particular horse to protect it from being claimed.

'They're not with the horse every day,' says Fergason, 54, who used to breed his own horses on his 50 acres in Clark County, property where he has a 30-stall stable and a track.

'You can see something coming - where it may be time to drop down or let somebody else claim them. It's good having owners who let you run horses (in condition races) where they belong.'

And when owners get sentimental about horses, Fergason is there with straight advice.

'I tell them I have to run it as a business,' he says.

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