Editor’s Note: New York and Florida farrier Ray Amato Jr. recently passed away from pancreatic cancer. In his memory, Elizabeth Anne Gillespie shares her first meeting with Ray and his father Ray Sr. The article was originally published March 27, 2018, by Horse Racing Nation.
Thoroughbred racing is an extended family where lifelong friendships are forged and memorable experiences are shared and celebrated. A chance meeting in a doctor’s waiting room one Saratoga morning led me on such a journey.
I had pulled my baseball cap down over my eyes, halfway listening to the quiet conversation between two gentlemen sitting nearby. It was clear how close they were — perhaps best friends. They were warm and friendly, asking about my hat, a souvenir from a recent historic Belmont Stakes, in which American Pharoah came storming home to the deafening roar of the crowd, finally breaking the 37-year drought to win the Triple Crown.
Little did I know I was sitting across from two of the most well-respected farriers in the industry. I came to admire Ray Amato and his son Ray Jr. They form the gifted team that shoes horses for seven-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher.
Ray Amato is 84 years young. He says he’s never missed a day of work on the backstretch and still actively shoes horses every day. His fit frame is one of a man half his age. How passionate is Amato about his job? He doesn’t take vacations, instead considering work at some of the most beautiful racetracks in the country his getaways.
Amato’s son and partner Ray Jr. has worked alongside his father since starting his career at age 16, assisting during summer racing meets on the East Coast. Nearing his 17th birthday and high school graduation, his dad told him he had a decision to make. Go to school to be a veterinarian, or continue as a farrier in the family business. He had until the next morning to decide.
The concept of choosing a life’s vocation in a matter of hours was nothing more than a typical Amato trademark; a no-nonsense, simple question. In Ray Jr.’s mind, it became a practical matter. Many years of schooling ahead, or an immediate vocation, earning a living today? The Amato team was forged, with their days beginning at 5 a.m.
Ray Sr. also grew up the son of a farrier. His father was a blacksmith from Italy who shod carriage horses. Realizing that cars would soon replace carriages, Ray found horse racing and, on the advice of a respected trainer, set up shop. He quickly earned a name and reputation as one of the best and most reliable. By the time Ray Jr., joined his father full-time, their collective résumé read like a who’s who of the biggest names in racing, both human and equine.
Similar to a pit crew in Formula 1 auto racing, a whole support team exists to ensure the health and fitness of racehorses; grooms, veterinarians, farriers and trainers coordinate their knowledge and skills. A farrier must have knowledge of the horse’s anatomy and physiology, pathology and mechanics. One can never take this for granted or oversimplify the job or its importance.
This team approach is evident everywhere at Palm Beach Downs, the Florida training facility where Pletcher stables in the winter. Ray Sr. was approached by the young trainer with a small string of horses early in his career when he politely asked him if he was available. At the time, Ray Sr. was too busy to take on another trainer, but was so impressed by Pletcher’s professionalism, work ethic and manners that he said to himself, “How can I not help him? He’s such a nice guy. I’ll take the job.” They’ve worked in tandem ever since.
Each horse that comes into the barn is treated by the Amatos as though they are a multi-million dollar stakes winner, a Breeders Cup champion, or a Kentucky Derby winner. Pletcher often has each of those among his arsenal anyway. Ray Jr.’s father taught him from the very beginning to “work on every horse as if it were the best and most brilliant in the barn, no matter if it’s the stable pony or the champion stakes earner. They are all deserving of our best treatment and care.”
Their groom Melinton, an important member of the team, works as a holder. He brings horses from the barn by the lead shank, expertly walking them so the farriers are able to observe the horse’s individual conformation and the way they move. Balance is paramount. A natural gift for quieting and calming horses during shoeing is of utmost importance, given the dangers of the job.
Observing the Amatos one morning in early 2017, I took immediate notice of a stunning dark bay colt as he was led into the shed row. His name appears on their whiteboard: Always Dreaming. I had no idea that in a few months, we would meet again.
There is simply no other experience like being on the Churchill Downs backstretch during Kentucky Derby week. It’s electrifying, and nowhere was this more evident than the Pletcher barn. Ray Jr. and his father drove from their South Florida base to Louisville specifically to shoe the Pletcher horses entered on Derby Day.
I met them at the barns as the sun rose. There was a flurry of activity around the adjoining barns as I eyed the colorful saddle cloths of the Kentucky Derby contenders who walked by, one after the other, going to the track for their training. Rob Logsdon, FPD sales manager for Kerckhaert Racing Plates, delivered boxes of racing plates for the Amatos.
Always Dreaming, the brilliant dark bay colt by Bodemeister was feeling full of himself and fresh. Ray Jr. explains how rapidly these colts blossom and change in their 3-year-old season. Always Dreaming was a different horse that day than the one I met at the beginning of the year.
Father and son went to work while Melinton held the recent Florida Derby champion. They worked to remove, rasp, form and place his new set of racing plates. Their hands moved the rasp with such finesse and in a motion so fluid and effortless that I never noticed a break in the action. The nails were precisely driven, and the hammer flips over to cut each nail in a rhythmic, sweeping motion. Ray Sr. never took his eyes off the colt’s feet until Ray Jr. was finished.
On my drive back to Lexington, I had an overwhelming feeling that perhaps this will be the year, with this team, and that colt, to wear roses the first Saturday in May. It’s something we all do this time of year despite trainer records, prep races and what the owners had in mind when they named their colt-Always Dreaming. Just days later, I stood on the rail beneath the iconic Twin Spires and cheered as the magnificent colt I met in January thundered down the stretch of a muddy track and into history.
My thoughts turned to the Amatos, the gracious father/son team that allowed me a rare glimpse into their world. They were already back at work in Florida, proud to be part of the winning team that was behind the Kentucky Derby champion every step of the way. It’s been said that a racehorse is an animal that can take several thousand people for a ride at the same time. I was one of them on Kentucky Derby Day.