Team Atras and barn mascot Gilbert chasing GOAT status in New York
by Keith McCalmont
Trainer Rob Atras hung his shingle out during last year's winter meet at Aqueduct Racetrack and has seen his stable grow to 34 horses strong. He currently sits third in the Big A trainer standings with 16 wins from 51 starts.
The Winnipeg native, formerly an assistant to Robertino Diodoro, launched a then modest eight-horse stable with the help of his wife, Brittney, a graduate of the Darley Flying Start program.
The couple work together each morning at their Belmont barn with Gilbert, barn mascot and unofficial head of security, while awaiting the opportunity to restart the Aqueduct meet currently postponed due to changing circumstances in the racing community relative to the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Gilbert features regularly on Brittney's Twitter account @BrittneyMAtras. To enjoy a sample of Gilbert's work, see https://twitter.com/brittneymatras/status/1241136128826187777.
"One thing is for sure, life has not changed for Gilbert," laughed Atras. "He's happy and very well fed."
The Atras barn was on a hot streak before racing halted at the Big A, hitting the board with five of their last six starters including wins from Sadie Lady, Bossy Bride and Royal Albert Hall.
"I was really hoping to get through these last two weeks of the winter meet," said Atras. "We had a lot of horses to run, but I totally understand what had to be done. Racing is racing, but life is more important."
While business stops across New York State, an executive order from New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo provides additional, specific justification regarding jobs that are essential, including those connected to the stabling and training operations at Belmont.
"Obviously, we don't know when we'll be running again, but I'm trying to keep my horses fit and healthy so when we do get the go ahead, we'll be ready," said Atras.
Among those on the work tab recently for Atras was Heavy Roller, who breezed three furlongs in 38.95 on the Belmont training track on Sunday.
Owned by Michael Dubb, a perennial leading owner on the NYRA circuit and a member of NYRA's Board of Directors, Heavy Roller ran sixth with a good excuse last out in the Bernardini.
"He caught a dirt clod during his last race and he had an ulcer in his eye. It took about 10 days to clear up," said Atras. "He missed a little bit of training but he galloped good throughout the week and I thought I'd give him a little three-eighths just to keep him going."
Royal Albert Hall, a now 8-year-old son of Royal Applause, provided Atras with his first local stakes win when capturing the 2019 Bernardini. The hard-knocking gelding sports a record of 48-4-11-10 with purse earnings in excess of $400,000. He rallied last-to-first on March 14 to capture a $25,000 claiming tilt at Aqueduct.
"He really stepped up last time," said Atras. "He took a long time to come around. He wasn't right in Saratoga, so we gave him some time off. It took time for him to get his form back. He's getting a little older now and his top races might be behind him, but his last race was good so at least we know he still wants to do it."
Other Atras stable stars like Mr. Dougie Fresh, fourth in the Grade 3 Tom Fool last out, and eight-time winner Dynamax Prime, continue to train and maintain their fitness.
"I was hoping to run 'Dougie' in an allowance race at the end of the month, but you will see him back on the work tab soon," said Atras. "We had Dynamax Prime pointed to the starter stakes on the 28th, but he'll continue training. He's doing well and will be on the work tab again soon."
The Atras stable now boasts a burgeoning list of owners, and they have made effective use of the claims slip to improve their stock.
"There were ups and downs throughout the winter, but overall I think we took a step forward," said Atras. "We have a really well-rounded stable now. There's more quantity but we also have a lot of quality horses now which is what I was aiming for. That's not to say a lower-level claimer can't be a quality horse, but leading over a contender every time has always been my goal. We now have a good balance of lower-level claimers up to allowance horses and a few overnight stakes horses."
Atras said he credits his staff for the continued success and noted that their efforts are more important than ever during this time of uncertainty related to the effects of the coronavirus.
"I have a veteran staff. Our grooms are very clean and professional and so good at their jobs. I'm very fortunate," said Atras. "We're all being extra careful to clean common areas, especially the lead shanks.
"The process is efficient. The groom goes in the stall and brings the horse out and the rider gets on," said Atras. "For the most part, it's just rider and horse to the track and the closest contact comes afterwards with the hotwalker holding the horse while the groom sponges the horse."
Monotony is one of the common annoyances for many households practicing social distancing with New York on lockdown.
"Usually, we'd have the races to go to in the afternoon and then maybe go out for supper," said Atras. "But life is getting pretty repetitive now. We're out to the barn in the morning and come straight home in the afternoon for an hour or two and then back to the barn again to feed the horses. It's only been a week, but it's getting a little boring.
"We watch Governor Cuomo every day. He does a good job and gives you the facts," added Atras. "I'm not a very political guy but he's sincere and really relates to the people. The changes we make here in New York, which is the epicenter of it all, could change things for the rest of the United States... and Canada."
And like many outfits working hard daily on the Belmont backstretch, the Atras family is looking forward to getting back to racing.
"With all these protocols in place, I really hope we can flatten the curve and see the numbers start going the other way and level off," said Atras. "Hopefully, everyone complies and we can get back to normal life."