Review: Unlikely success of horse trainer makes for great story

‘Ghost Horse’ is latest work from local writer Layden

Sunday, June 30, 2013
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This is the cover of Joe Layden's "The Ghost Horse."
This is the cover of Joe Layden's "The Ghost Horse."

Every two or three years, I spend a day at Saratoga Race Course. I’m not a big horse racing fan, but I love the people watching. The racetrack always seems to have a high number of memorable characters. After reading Joe Layden’s newest book, “The Ghost Horse,” I plan on going back this summer. Hopefully, I’ll be able to see trainer Tim Snyder and his filly Lisa’s Booby Trap.

Layden, who lives in Saratoga Springs and was once a sports reporter for The Daily Gazette and the Times Union, knows a good story when he sees one, and Tim Snyder is one of the best stories you will ever want to hear. When Layden first introduced himself to Snyder at Saratoga, the trainer owned just a single horse: Lisa’s Booby Trap.

Layden writes: “Since he came to Saratoga as something of an interloper, Snyder had no barn of his own, but was instead given a single stall in the stakes barn not far from the Spa’s paddock area, and a metaphorical mile from the pristine, multistall digs of superstar trainers such as Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert.”

‘The Ghost Horse’

AUTHOR: Joe Layden

PUBLISHER: St. Martin’s Press, 256 pages

HOW MUCH: $24.99

For a few months though in the summer of 2010, Lisa’s Booby Trap and Snyder were the biggest story in all of horse racing.

To fully understand the magnitude and the magic of this story, it’s important to understand who Tim Snyder is, and Layden spends a good part of the book explaining Snyder’s dysfunctional childhood. Layden explains how he sat down one day with Snyder looking over a family photo album as Tim told the story of his father and grandfather. He also shows the author pictures of his wife, Lisa, who was 10 years younger than he and from a different world.

Nomadic horseman

“He was a nomadic but talented horseman who had trekked across the country scores of times, picking up work wherever he could find it; a rider who had gotten too big and broken too many bones to keep riding, and who had turned his attention to training. Cheap horses, mostly, that he churned to keep his little operation going.”

Snyder’s wife was a former show jumper who also felt the lure of the racetrack and took a job as a hot-walker in her late 20s. “They’d met one day in 1993 when Snyder nearly ran her down along the shed row at Finger Lakes. She was young and pretty and Snyder fell for her instantly. Within two years, they were married and in business together, eventually accruing a marginally profitable stable of 20 to 25 horses. Theirs was not an operation designed to produce or acquire Triple Crown champions. It was a way to make a decent and honorable living doing what they enjoyed the most.”

Tim would have been content to live out his days like this, but unfortunately Lisa contracted cancer, and Tim remembers as she lay dying she said with a weak smile, “It’s okay. I’ll see you again. I’m coming back as a horse.”

But what happens when the love of your life and the best thing that ever happened to you dies? In the case of Tim Snyder when his wife and best friend Lisa died of cancer in 2003, he became totally lost and adrift.

“I didn’t turn to drugs,” he said. “Not much anyway. But I drank a lot. Basically, I had a breakdown.”

Layden writes that each night consumed by loneliness, Tim cried himself to sleep. “Days . . . months . . . were passed in a near-catatonic state. It went on like that for more than three years, until slowly the pain began to recede and Snyder felt the pull of the only life he knew, a life at the racetrack. He returned to New York with nothing but his name and a fifty-something body still fit enough to gallop horses and clean stalls, and slowly pieced his life together.”

Back on track

What turned Snyder around was the only thing he was ever very good at, his skill with horses. In the winter of 2010, he bought a big filly for $4,500. No one else seemed to want the horse, and it was practically given away. “The horse was pretty to look at, but the filly apparently had been dealt a genetic short straw. She was sightless in her left eye and suffered from congenital abnormalities in her left foot and shoulder. No one, it seemed, thought she’d ever make it to the starting line.”

Lisa’s Booby Trap does quite a bit more than just make it to the starting line, and if you love Cinderella stories then “The Ghost Horse” is for you.

Layden has done an excellent job at telling this thrilling story, and when you read this book he brings the sounds and sights of the racetrack to life. Because of his hard work in interviewing most of the people involved in this story, Layden gives an accurate account of Tim Snyder and his horse.

Snyder is a flawed character like we all are, and readers will easily identify with him. He is also an honest person who is not afraid to point out his own mistakes. We want him to succeed, and as you read this book you feel like you’re right there at the rail with the sound of the horses racing to the finish and you want to cheer with everyone at the racetrack hoping that your voice can make Lisa’s Booby Trap run faster and hopefully win.

 

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