Categories: Life & Arts
Leo “Pepper” Belouin knew the speed and strength of thoroughbred racehorses.
On July 3, 1954, the Schenectady kid was in the saddle for his first professional race at Delaware Park. The Brandywine Stables filly Iris finished last, but Belouin was already thinking about the next post time.
“I was out there for experience,” he said later. “But we did all right because Bobby Stovall riding the other half of an entry got in the money.”
Belouin (pronounced Bel-oyne) was 20 years old during the summer of 1954, and spent August working as an exercise rider at the Brandywine camp in Saratoga Springs. He would ride horses during their morning workouts, help train animals in the starting gate and walk horses — cooling them off — after strenuous drills.
“This is the life for me,” Belouin said.
The rookie had graduated from Mont Pleasant High School in 1952. At 4-foot-10 and 90 pounds, he found scholastic work as manager of coach Ray Vacca’s basketball team. Vacca believed Belouin, whose grandmother had nicknamed him “Pepper” for childhood energy, had the skill and temperament to ride fast horses. Vacca introduced the young man to Brandywine trainer Virgil “Buddy” Raines, who signed up the eager Belouin for work at Brandywine’s farm in Stanton, Del.
Belouin started at the bottom. He swept out stalls. He cleaned saddles and other leather equipment worn by horses. Eventually, he learned how to ride thoroughbreds.
“After seven months at the farm, Pep was ready to start exercising horses and in the spring of ’53 he joined the stable as it made the swing around the big-time circuit — the New York and Florida tracks,” wrote Art Hoefs, a Gazette sportswriter who visited the aspiring jockey at Saratoga.
Early mornings were part of the job. So were falls — a filly learning the starting gate routine spilled Pepper on at least one occasion.
“Raines, Pep’s only boss in the racing game, feels that the Schenectady kid has attained his top weight and probably won’t get any heavier, at least for a few years,” Hoefs wrote. “He said Pepper has the right attitude to become a successful rider and he has tried to impart the correct saddle temperament — an ability to lose as gracefully as you can win.”
Raines knew all about bad tempers. “A hot-headed jock just can’t make it,” the veteran trainer said.
Belouin, whose family lived at 3 Chester St. at the time, only raced a few times. He never became a star, and was off the saddles by 1955 — Raines was wrong about Pepper’s top weight.
“I loved the business, I just didn’t make it,” said Belouin, now 74 and a resident of Rome in Oneida County. “I just got too heavy, like some other friends of mine.”
He gave up the best seat in racing for a job behind the scenes. He began working as an assistant trainer for Brandywine Stables.
“We won the Preakness with Greek Money in 1962. That was the best horse we ever had,” Belouin said. “That was my last year there. I wisely talked to Buddy; at 28 years old, I was a pretty old veteran and way too heavy to ride any more. On Sept. 30, 1962 — it was a Sunday — I took my boots off, faced them toward the barn, turned the other way and never walked back. I left cold. I started my new job the next day.”
That new job was dental sales at the Schenectady Scientific dental lab on State Street. The business eventually became Parker Scientific, with offices in Syracuse and Utica. The company is now known as Biogenic Dental Corp. of Utica, and manufactures crowns, bridges, dentures and other oral installations for dentists.
Belouin, the company’s vice president for client care, has lived in Utica since 1965. He no longer follows racing. “The work I’ve been doing here has been much more exciting for me,” he said.
He remembers other exciting times — of furious speed and real horsepower at the top of the stretch.
“I’m still feeling good,” he said. “I attribute my physical fitness to my years of riding. Those 10 years, I never felt so strong in my life, even for a little guy.”