Pub will be buzzing when 'Punch' runs Trainer Barbara likes odds at local tavern he owns

June 08, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Every horse race has its charming story, and the 128th Belmont has Bobby Barbara, Jamies First Punch and Esposito's Tavern.

Barbara, 43, is the trainer of Jamies First Punch, one of eight newcomers challenging seven horses from the Kentucky Derby or Preakness in today's Belmont Stakes.

Barbara is Brooklyn through-and-through, a hard-working, fun-loving fellow who rings in the dawn with his horses and rings out daylight with a beer.

When he was 11, he started riding his older brother's horse at a Brooklyn riding academy. A natural, he soon was riding in horse shows. When he was 14 or 15, a couple of boys from the academy started racing quarter horses.

"I was the smallest one, and the most agile, so they threw me up there on them," said Barbara, who is 5 feet 7.

At 16, he started riding at racetracks, mainly Aqueduct and Belmont. But by 18, he was so emaciated from trying to maintain his weight that doctors forced him to quit.

"They told me I was 20, 30 pounds dehydrated," said Barbara, who weighed 105. "In three days I gained 20 pounds just from putting fluids back in my body."

He eventually started training horses -- one, then two, then four, "and little by little things happened over the years," he said.

Now he trains 36, including the 3-year-old gelding Jamies First Punch, who has won five of seven races, including the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont, in which he blew past Unbridled's Song.

Many locals give Jamies First Punch a big shot in today's Belmont.

That brings us to Esposito's (or Espo's, as the locals call it), a tavern across Plainfield Avenue from Belmont Park's back side. Opened in 1936 by Gilda and Arthur Esposito, and later run by their sons John and Arthur Jr., Esposito's gained legendary status as a haven for horse folks not only from New York, but from around the country.

When Arthur Jr. died last year, John put the place up for sale. And Barbara, who had been dropping in for at least 15 years, bought it along with two partners.

Esposito's has a tradition, painting the picket fence the colors of the Belmont winner's silks, and those colors remain until next year's Belmont.

With a crooked smile and a sparkle in his eyes, Barbara promises to maintain tradition. And, just for the record, the silks worn by the jockey aboard Jamies First Punch are yellow and purple.

Meanwhile, one trainer not smiling is Sonny Hine, at least when discussing post-position draws.

Hine trains Skip Away, who is owned by his wife Carolyn, a native of Highlandtown. For the third straight time in a Triple Crown race, their colt drew a hideous post position.

Skip Away drew No. 13 in a field of 15 in the Belmont -- after drawing No. 11 in a field of 12 in the Preakness and No. 17 in a field of 20 in the Kentucky Derby (later changed to 16 after one horse scratched).

"It's very sad, really shocking to me," Hine said. "Somewhere along the line, you'd think we'd get a good draw."

Pub Date: 6/08/96

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