The biggest testament to the whirlwind that has been the barn of trainer Charlie Lopresti the past two years might be what is on his living room walls — or rather, what is missing from them.
Though the Brooklyn native has racked up 15 stakes victories since June 2009 — 11 more than he earned in the 15 prior years combined — the only winner's circle photo displayed amid the homey, rustic decor is that of Successful Dan, the first graded-stakes winner Lopresti ever saddled.
Since "Dan's" triumph in the 2009 Grade III Northern Dancer Stakes, the images immortalizing Lopresti's top charges have piled up so much that he and his wife, Amy, are now backlogged in their decorating chores.
The reason those photos aren't up yet, though, is the same reason they keep multiplying. For 20-plus years, Lopresti has been squarely focused on his horses and his horsemanship beliefs. Now that his operation is enjoying career-best success, the last thing he and Amy want is to stop doing what got them there.
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"It's pretty cool right now to think you have those kind of horses," Lopresti said with a grin while seated a few feet from Successful Dan's winning snapshot. "It's kind of fun."
On display or not, it is hard to ignore what Lopresti's barn has achieved the past couple of seasons. Of the $6,889,724 in earnings since he first took out his trainer's license in 1993, $3,356,829 has been amassed since the start of 2010 due largely to the emergence of performers such as Successful Dan, his half-brother Wise Dan and Grade I winners Turallure and Here Comes Ben.
Included in the 15 stakes wins over the past 21/2 years are nine graded stakes, the most recent being Wise Dan's open-length victory in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs last month.
One year after Wise Dan and Here Comes Ben became Lopresti's first Breeders' Cup starters when they competed in the 2010 Sprint and Dirt Mile, respectively, the 54-year-old nearly earned his first Breeders' Cup win this Nov. 5 when Turallure fell a nose short of Court Vision in the $2 million Mile.
It was only about four years ago Lopresti wondered whether to wave the white flag on his hopes of ever getting horses good enough to make his training aspirations worthwhile. After his modest-size, Keeneland-based stable won 15 races in both 1996 and 1997, Lopresti cracked double digits in victories only once during the next decade, taking just a single stakes race during that time.
Around the time his perseverance was being tested, the horses that would validate the lessons he learned under such hardboots as Ted Carr began landing in his care. While he and Amy were long known for their aptitude in breaking yearlings, Lopresti is now earning a new level of respect for his ability to recognize talent and the time it takes to develop it.
"I always believed in the way we broke our horses and the way we trained our horses, and then, all of the sudden, Successful Dan came along, and Here Comes Ben came along," Lopresti said. "Four years ago, I was thinking, this racehorse thing is kind of crazy; I'm never going to get the really good horses ... but I always thought I wanted to do it the way that I do it.
"I just want to be more like the old, tiny stables. If you look at the Mack Millers and Frank Whiteley's, they didn't run 365 days a year. A lot of people can't stand still for that, but ... the people need time, and the horses need time."
Though he carries on the old-school methods of some of racing's traditionalists, Lopresti wasn't a product of the traditional Thoroughbred world.
'A young man with a bright future'
Having grown up around carriage and show horses, Lopresti's introduction to racing came not from a trip to the track, but rather while flipping through an issue of the trade publication Blood-Horse Magazine.
"That's where I thought, these racehorses are kind of cool looking," Lopresti said with a laugh. "Then I saw a classified ad for a farm job (in Virginia), and I thought I ought to call these people."
When he arrived for the interview, he learned the job had already been filled, but he was recommended to work for trainer Joe Cantey upon his return to New York.
Cutting his teeth under Cantey provided Lopresti invaluable initial lessons, but what he really wanted to know was how those horses got to the track to begin with. Thus, Cantey later helped Lopresti land a job with noted horseman Carr at Domino Stud in 1978, a fated occurrence because it was there he and Amy — a lifelong horsewoman — first met.
After Lopresti followed Carr to become his assistant manager at Allen Paulson's Brookside Farm for several years, Lopresti and Amy decided to form their own farm in Lexington dubbed Forest Lane around the time he was offered a job breaking and prepping babies at historic Calumet Farm.
"Charlie was a young man with a bright future because he really wanted to work at it," Carr recalled. "Nowadays, these trainers want to either run them and run them or train them and train them. We'd turn them out in the fall, give them a month or two off; that's just the way it was.
"There are not many horsemen around anymore, so ... I'm proud of Charlie and what he's done."
By that point, Lopresti's skill set had earned him some client loyalty that would change his life. When he went to work for Calumet, the late Bob Lewis asked Lopresti whether he would take a horse of his named Competitive Edge to the farm to prep him for a return to the track after undergoing throat surgery in 1992.
The gelding ended up earning three of his four career wins while under Lopresti's care, prompting then-Calumet Farm owner Henryk de Kwiatkowski to ask why Lopresti wasn't conditioning some of his ready-to-race runners.
"I didn't even have a trainer's license at the time, but that one horse got it all started," Lopresti said. "I took out a license and, when management changed at Calumet, I moved on and started my own barn at Keeneland."
Even when the results weren't pouring in on the racetrack, Lopresti and his wife maintained a solid business prepping horses on their farm, including 1999 Horse of the Year Charismatic for Bob and Beverly Lewis.
Though saddle cloths from their graded-stakes winner now drape over an upstairs banister, how the Lopresti's do things on the farm hasn't wavered in good times or bad.
Faithful to horsemanship
The phrase "letting horses be horses" is common in the equine community, often meant as a compliment to those who don't baby the sometimes fragile, but inherently rugged creatures.
At the Loprestis' Forest Lane operation, they are words they live by — as evidenced by the simple but spacious indoor arena where horses such as Turallure romp and the round pen where every baby gets its first feel of a saddle.
Taking a cue from the techniques used by ranch hands, Charlie and Amy Lopresti make a point of exposing their horses to as much as nature will allow them — riding them through such "scary" obstacles as creeks and past fearsome presences such as cattle on their 200-acre property before using their three-stall starting gate as a resting point.
Teaching a young horse to calmly walk through water might not seem like a monumental feat. But when those horses have to run over a sloppy track for the first time, the fact that they don't fear getting their feet wet is suddenly a big deal.
"If you were to ride a yearling across a creek, you'd be amazed sometimes, when they put their feet in the water, they run backward," Lopresti said. "We just expose them to everything you can expose a horse to. About 12-15 years ago, I started going to these horsemanship clinics, and I think that's a big thing that has helped our program.
"It's just good horsemanship," Amy Lopresti added. "And chances are, these horses are going to have to do something else at some point in their lives anyway. They're horses, and you have to treat them that way."
Not every owner is willing to buy into Lopresti's program, his tendency to space out horses' starts or his desire to be based in Kentucky year-round. Not surprisingly, however, many his clients have been supporters since he got his first six stalls at Keeneland.
"I consider (Charlie and Amy) the two best people I've met in the business, and I've been in the business for 40 years," said Morton Fink, owner and breeder of Wise Dan and Successful Dan. "He has people calling him all the time, but he turns them down because he feels with 15-18 horses at a time, he knows them all; he knows their quirks and can take care of them all. He does everything himself."
In the days before Here Comes Ben rolled to victory in the Grade I Forego last September to give him and his trainer their first top-level score, Lopresti took a gander at his Saratoga surroundings and pondered whether he was in the right place.
"I got to looking around at all those bigger trainers and thinking, 'My God, do I really belong here?' " he said.
In case Lopresti still wonders, the stack of winner's circle photos waiting for their wall space serves as a resounding reply.