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"El Gran Senor"

When Hall of Famer Huratio Luro was training race horses, he was referred to as "El Gran Senor". The nickname was given to him as a show of respect and admiration. He was one of the best at his craft, having trained Decidedly to win the 1962 Kentucky Derby, then in 1964, came within six lengths of winning the Triple Crown with a little horse called Northern Dancer. Luro, who was born in Argentina in 1901 and died here in the United States in 1991, is also credited with coining the phrase that is still used today, "to never squeeze the lemon dry". Ask any good horseman and they know exactly what the phrase means.

At this historic Gentilly oval, we have what I consider to be our own "El Gran Senor". I'm talking about Mario Torres, retired jockey and now Fair Grounds stall superintendent. I've called Mario "El Gran Senor" for a long time for the same reasons that Horatio Luro was given the nickname, as a show of respect and admiration. Mario was born in Panama City, Panama in 1949 and became a jockey in 1968. Starting out as a jockey at 19 years-old is considered by many locals to be a late start in a career that boasts a lot of very young talent. Over a 10-year period Mario won somewhere around 500 races on the Panama circuit.

On November 12, 1977 (he knew the exact date) Mario came to the United States and started an American riding career on the Fair Grounds - Jefferson Downs circuit. The local circuit was very kind to Mario and he quickly became a household name to local horsemen and horseplayers. "I knew I'd have to work hard to get established, so when I came here I was ready to do whatever it took to break-in. I worked a lot of horses, and slowly but surely, it began to pay off. We were winning races on a regular basis."

Mario, always the gentleman, was a very crafty rider. He was just as dangerous on a speed horse as he was on a come-from-behind closer. "My main objective was to out-think the other riders during a race and then leave the rest up to my riding ability. You would be surprised at how many races are won by doing just that. I firmly believe the most successful riders today owe a lot of their success to being able to outwit their opponents. If they're worried about what you're going to do, it takes away from their race riding tactics."

Mario's best and worse day of his riding career happened in the same race, the Fantasy Stakes, in 1987 at Oaklawn Park. "I was riding Up The Apalachee, who I considered to be the best horse I'd ever ridden, for trainer George Arceneaux in this big race. I was pumped and I really thought she was ready. Turned out she was ready, ran the race of her life and won the race, but the stewards thought they saw something, some sort of interference in the race and hung the inquiry sign. They looked at it and took our number down for what they considered careless riding. To this day, not only me, but a lot of people remember that race and thought we should have never been disqualified. You know what, I voiced my opinion, it's over, it's in the past and I won't dwell on it."

On February 23, 1991 (he knew that exact date also) Mario hung up his tack and started a new career in racing as a patrol and placing judge. "I started learning the racing office side of the business at Jefferson Downs after I retired from some good people. Laurel Hauer, David Heitzmann, Barbara Comberrel and Blaine Seward really helped me make the transition to the racing office. Blaine kind of took me under her wing and really taught me the ins and outs of the racing office and working in the placing judges stand. It was a different world, but it was fun to learn that side of the business."

In December of 1993, Mario was working as the assistant stall superintendent to Tom Davis when the Fair Grounds went up in flames. That night changed a lot of lives and a lot of careers. Tom Davis decided to leave New Orleans and head to Trinity Meadows and Mario, a part-time employee, was offered the job as the year-round head-man. "Bryan Krantz was concerned I might not be ready for the job, but Mervin Muniz, God rest his soul, convinced him to give me a shot. I'm greatful to Mervin for going to bat for me and I've been in that position ever since."

The "Stall Man's" job here involves a lot more than keeping track of what horses are in what stalls for which trainer. "I'm involved in the stall allotment process before the meet opens, assigning dorm rooms for employees, assigning walking wheels, keeping track of daily ship-ins that run and acting as an interpreter for the more than 80% Hispanic employees. This is a full time job and it will consume you if you let it. You've got to approach this job the right way. Trainers are under pressure, so you've got to know their personalities and how to deal with them. When my phone rings, you can believe on the other end is a trainer with a concern or a specific need. It's my job to get involved and go the extra mile to solve their problem or deal with any concerns. Some trainers are more difficult than others, but for the most part they're a pretty understanding bunch. I think they all know that I will do what I need to do to accomodate them."

One small problem unique to the Fair Grounds barn area is there is no stakes barn. When this track was built, no accomodations were factored in for ship-ins for stakes races. "We've got a pretty attractive stakes program and nowhere to put the horses that come in for big races. My job for Derby, Oaks, and Handicap prep days and then the actual big days is to find top trainers with room in their barns to accomodate this caliber of ship-ins, their equipment and their help. The trainers coming in for these types of races need to be sure their horses are coming into a comfortable and safe environment and we do our best to ensure that."

I think our local training contingent will agree, Mario Torres, our version of "El Gran Senor", has developed into one of the most respected, well-liked stall superintendents in the entire racing industry. Instead of "squeezing the lemon dry", Mario is always looking for lemons to make lemonade to help quench the thirst of his fellow horsemen.

Buena suerte, "El Gran Senor".