Aqueduct winter meet suits Winnipeg-native Atras
by Keith McCalmont
As Daria's Angel walked circles in the paddock ahead of Saturday's opening race at Aqueduct Racetrack, 34-year-old conditioner Rob Atras, clad in an Assiniboia Downs jacket and New York Yankees cap, watched with crossed arms and a focused eye.
The Winnipeg native, formerly an assistant to Robertino Diodoro, made the decision to go out on his own for the Big A winter meet and has hit the ground running, with five wins from his first nine starters.
He runs an efficient eight-horse stable with the help of his wife, Brittney, a graduate of the Darley Flying Start program and the daughter of former Churchill Downs-based trainer Larry Dixon.
"I thought the winter would be the best time to make a go of it," said Atras. "There's a little less competition with a lot of the bigger outfits down in Florida, and we have a lot of claiming horses and their value is a little bit inflated right now."
There's certainly money to be made in Ozone Park. In November, NYRA announced significant purse increases across a number of categories, and there's also the Starter Loyalty Program, which provides purse bonuses for horses with five or more starts on the NYRA circuit, as well as the NYRA Per Start Credit Program, which guarantees owners will earn a minimum of $300 per start.
In her prior start, Daria's Angel went gate-to-wire to nose out Stay Fond, earning $43,323 for owners Drawing Away Stable.
The quiet Canadian has come a long way from his first win in Winnipeg when he saddled the Manitoba-bred Forgotten Battle to a modest score on September 3, 2010 at Assiniboia, picking up the $3,987 winner's share of the purse in a $5,000 claiming sprint.
Although he didn't grow up on a farm, Atras has always had horses in his life.
"My mom owned pieces of race horses here and there and exercised horses for a little bit. She introduced me to the sport. She has a win picture on the wall back home, and my mom's in the photo with me in her stomach, and that's the first time I was in the winner's circle," said Atras with a laugh.
Atras grew up as the typical racing-obsessed track kid and worked his way through a number of jobs at Assiniboia before finding his true calling.
"I was a runner for the press box; the silks guy in the jock's room; the patrol judge when there were objections; and then I started working in the barns doing stalls," recalled Atras. "I went to university for a year and a half and then went back to the track and never went back to school.
"Secretly, I always wanted to be at the track," he added. "When I was a kid I was running around with the whip and goggles pretending to be a jockey, but I got a bit too big for that."
Atras eventually found his way to the assistant trainer role and honed his craft under famed Winnipeg horsemen Jack Robertson and the late Bert Blake. Along the way, he owned and trained a few of his own horses and made the arduous journey back and forth from Assiniboia to Turf Paradise trying to carve out a living.
"To be honest, I really wasn't making a living at it," said Atras. "I'd do okay in Phoenix and pick up some horses and then show up in Winnipeg, go broke, win a bunch of races and head back to Phoenix again."
Atras treaded water for a few years and even spent a brief stint at Woodbine working for Malcolm Pierce, but it was a connection with Diodoro in 2015, a fellow Canadian who had a significant string at Turf Paradise, that helped shift Atras into a new venture.
"I got hooked up with Robertino and he'd send me a couple to run for him. He had a couple nice horses that I traveled with and he asked me to run his Oaklawn string, which was 45 horses strong," said Atras. "I thought about it and looked down my shed row and I had six horses and I was about to head to Phoenix again."
Atras and his wife decided a life change was in order and the brave decision provided the burgeoning conditioner an education in the life of a big-time trainer.
"I was exposed to a lot of things like owners, jockeys, agents, feed carriers. I was first-hand with them. Robertino and I talked about everything we did, but he had strings at Canterbury and Turf Paradise, so I was in charge and learning a lot," said Atras. "I was also able to spend time with a lot of really good horses and that was important because in Winnipeg, you're dealing with a different level of horses."
Atras credits the trainers he worked under for developing his skill set.
"I worked for a lot of good people and was able to experience different ways of doing things and took a little bit from each of them on how to care for and manage horses," said Atras. "The good horses need to train a little more than some of the cheaper horses. They all have ailments and some of them can't stand up to daily rigorous training.
"With Robertino, we had stakes horses and bottom claiming horses. The great thing with Robertino is he would treat them all like they were stakes horses," continued Atras. "They were all bedded real deep and had good grooms, big hay nets. If they needed extra attention, they got it. We were really on the same page with that."
Brittney, who also grew up in the game and spent time working as a vet assistant, recognized the benefit of her husband's quiet nature.
"It's hard to find someone who can understand horses as individuals like Rob does. Each horse is very different, and we have a lot of sensitive horses in our barn, but Rob never loses his patience. Horses just settle for Rob," said Brittney.
Diodoro, currently overseeing a large string at Oaklawn Park and Turf Paradise, said his former assistant's work ethic is an indicator of future success.
"Rob and I worked together for several years and he's always on top of things. To be successful in this game, you have to breathe, eat and sleep horse racing and that's definitely what Rob does," said Diodoro. "Rob is never one to cut corners. He's the type of guy that wants to get in there and dig and work himself. Among other things, that's what's going to allow him to be successful."
The couple work together each morning at their Belmont barn with a small staff and one very large goat named Gilbert, with a hands-on approach to horsemanship.
"Gilbert is our head of security," offers Brittney of the vociferous, sometimes grumpy and generally hungry lump that greets visitors.
Gilbert was meant to be a comfort animal - another horseman's touch to help get the best from their stable - but the idea didn't play out as planned.
"We had a crazy grey horse named Tappin Vegas and the racing manager suggested we get a goat for him. So, we bought Gilbert, who was supposedly broke for people, for $100. We tied him next to the horse, but Gilbert didn't want to go near him," said Atras. "He ended up going into the next stall and made friends with that horse and any time the horse went out to train or race, Gilbert would cry and cry. He'd want to follow us to the races.
"Gilbert's about 3-years-old now and he comes with us everywhere. Some people have dogs. We have a goat."
As Daria's Angel loaded into the gate, the couple turned their attention to the racetrack and quietly talk their filly through the race. She led to the half-mile pole but Mia Bella Rossa proved to be too much.
Daria's Angel stayed on for second and the couple embraced and exchanged a smile.
"We first met after Daria's Angel had run," explains Brittney. "I was sitting with Dr. Galvin in his car on Rob's wash rack and Rob was not too happy with how she ran. I don't think he had any interest in me, he might have caught my name, maybe."
A sparkle in Atras' eye suggests he definitely noticed his future wife. He doesn't miss much. And the oft-claimed filly, who has come back to Diodoro/Atras' stable on more than one occasion, is a heart-horse for the couple.
"'Daria' is pretty special to us. We love her, and she's a very nice horse," said Atras.
Despite the long hours and hard work, the husband and wife duo are happy with the decision they have made to stay and make a go of life in New York.
"We didn't want to look back and have regrets about not taking this opportunity," said Atras. "I'd like to have a successful stable in New York. I think New York is the best circuit. You have the best trainers, the best riders and big owners."
And one pretty good goat, too.