Unusual journey for owner/trainer
The purest thing about horse racing, maybe the only pure thing, is that there are no false prejudices or artificial barriers to stop anyone from playing this game at the highest level. Want to be part of the Triple Crown? All you need is a 3-year-old, a $20,000 entry fee and more hope than common sense.
And it’s in that spirit we find owner/trainer Doodnauth Shivmangal, who has entered a horse in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes that, if there were actual requirements to get in the race, probably wouldn’t meet any of them.
Guyana Star Dweej, a horse Shivmangal bought as a yearling for $5,500, has a maiden win in nine career starts. He’s never contested a stakes race, much less taken on the best 3-year-olds in training. His lifetime best Beyer speed figure, a handicapping tool that distills the time of every race into a single number, is 84 — about 25 points shy of what would typically win the Belmont.
Shivmangal, a native of Guyana who has won just one stakes race during his on-again, off-again career as a trainer in the U.S, isn’t merely aiming high here. He’s entering one of the biggest long shots in the history of the race.
“If my horse finishes first, second or third, I’m happy,” Shivmangal said. “I don’t want to just be in the race because I wanted to run. I wanted to do something.”
The racetrack bluebloods are laughing about this, about Shivmangal thinking he can win with a horse that so clearly doesn’t belong. Most of them are, anyway. And the ones who aren’t laughing? They’re merely hoping Guyana Star Dweej stays out of the way, doesn’t cause trouble for anyone else.
More than likely, Guyana Star Dweej, 50-1 on the morning line, will neither thrill his owner nor bother the other entrants much at all. Shivmangal’s horse will be so far back so quickly, you probably won’t even know he’s there.
But what if it doesn’t happen that way? What if this is the day the longest of long shots comes in? If anyone is going to spoil a Triple Crown, why not the oddly named horse with the most interesting human connections in the race?
Let’s be honest, after the scratch of Triple Crown hopeful I’ll Have Another because of a leg injury, this isn’t a particularly compelling Belmont. It’s a few of the same faces and average horses I'll Have Another beat in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, plus some new shooters without many bullets. Without the Triple Crown drama, most of us will roll our eyes and forget about horse racing until the spring.
But Shivmangal? He’s hard to forget. Even in a sport renowned for its characters, there’s nobody on the backstretch quite like him.
To hear Shivmangal talk about his career as a second-generation horseman in Guyana is like hearing racing tales from another planet. A former British colony on the northern coast of South America, horses were imported to Guyana from England and raced so often it’s hard to fathom.
Shivmangal’s best horse was named Guyana Star, with whom he won 55 races, including five over a three-day span.
“Then he won four out of four, and he did that more than once carrying 140 pounds,” Shivmangal said. “I can tell you, he was one of the best.”
When Shivmangal saw the “spit image” of Guyana Star at an auction in Kentucky, he bought him and named him Guyana Star Dweej, adding the Hindu term that means “second coming.”
It seems doubtful the second Guyana Star can live up to the reputation of the first, but Shivmangal has rarely been deterred, even if his racing success in the U.S. has been far more modest than in his native country.
“The horses inspire me, and it’s therapy for me to be out here every morning,” he said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime shot to be in these races.”
It’s the kind of thing Shivmangal dreamed about when he came to the U.S. in 1984 during a period of political turbulence for Guyana, where clashes between the majority East Indian population and the Afro-Guyanese had escalated following its independence from British rule.
Shivmangal wanted to get back into horses, but his first priorities in this country were establishing a career and owning a home. He eventually started a trucking business out of John F. Kennedy Airport, which grew into a fairly sizable shipping operation. By 1991, he had enough money to start a small training operation and won a few races here and there, mostly with cheaper horses.
Four years later, however, Shivmangal left the racetrack to devote more time to his growing trucking operation. It wasn’t until 2009, after he had retired from working full time, that he started to go back to the horse sales.
Now, he has a stable of 15 horses, owned by himself and a cousin, including Shkspeare Shaliyah, who won the Grade 3 Pilgrim Stakes at Belmont last fall.
“I have some nice babies coming up, too,” Shivmangal said. “That’s my game. Babies, 2-year-olds. I don’t spend a lot of money. I buy them cheap and nurture them into good horses.”
And he does it with non-traditional methods, feeding his horses a homemade concoction of eggs and Guinness beer while family members — including his wife, two daughters and two sons — run every aspect of the racing operation.
Now, they’re on the sport’s biggest stage, which shows you that for all of horse racing’s problems, it’s as egalitarian as a sport can be. No BCS committees, no referee conspiracy theories. Just a man with the willingness to take a chance and a horse he believes in — no matter whether that belief is warranted.
“I think he’ll be able to give an account of himself,” Shivmangal said. “America has been great to me, and I’ve been blessed to have this opportunity. It’s a land of opportunity and I’ve made full use of it.”