Anyone who has spent any time at a racetrack has no doubt heard the familiar yarn countless times in varied forms. It goes like this: a young boy, usually just beginning his teenage years, visits the racetrack with a father figure and begins a roller-coaster of life experiences and memories, and a future as a fan and handicapper. That would have been the beginning and the probable end to a story involving a young boy from New Orleans named Tom Amoss, but it wasn’t. There’s more to the story.
Amoss was about 13 at this first excursion to the Fair Grounds with his childhood friend, Al Stall Jr., and his father, Al Stall Sr. That is when Amoss’ boilerplate beginning to racetrack life took a different turn — a turn for the best.
This particular outing took young Amoss away from his racing form, track program and some possible clubhouse betting to the backside to see one of Mr. Stall’s horses at the barn. It was then and there that Amoss’ future was sealed and the a new chapter of his racetrack life began.
In his own words, Amoss “just fell in love with the process.”
Amoss was initially attracted to the “intellectual challenge” of handicapping the races as a young teenager.
“Trying to put all the variables together and visualizing how a race was going to be run was the challenge,” he said.
However, once he got the unique aroma and look of the backside, the handicapping part took a backseat to learning how to be a trainer. Coming from a family with literally no connection to horse racing, at 15, Amoss got his first break from Stall, Sr. that led him to a job as a hot walker in the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg.
At the time, Van Berg was at the peak of his national success and fellow New Orleanian Frankie Brothers was Amoss’ boss and in charge of the barn. Frank Brothers would go on to become the leading trainer at the Fair Grounds many times over in the 1980s and working alongside Brothers during his summers off from LSU was a priceless education.
In 1983, Amoss graduated from LSU with a marketing degree and immediately put that four-year state college education to work at Louisiana Downs for Brothers.
After working for Brothers, Tom took a different route and accepted a job as a veterinarian’s assistant.
“I learned more in that year as a vet’s assistant than in any other job because you got to see so many horses in a day, and their problems — not just the ones in your barn,” he said.
It was a crash course in how to diagnose, treat and rehabilitate the big and small physical problems horses experience; it helped Tom become a better horseman.
After a stint with well-known and successful trainer Larry Robideaux, Amoss said it was time to go out on his own. He and his wife, Colleen, packed up and moved to Chicago, where he somehow got five horses and became a trainer.
The sojourn to Chicago didn’t last long before a call from New York leading trainer John Parisella beckoned him to the big time — or so he thought.
“I was an assistant, but John had a different way of handling his barn and left most of the work with the horses to me so it was hands-on and another rapid learning curve,” Amoss said.
After a season with Parisella, and moving five times in one year, Tom came home, took out his trainer’s license, got five horses from an owner he knew from past working relationships and since 1988, he has been on his own.
“That owner, who took a chance on me, gave me a nice horse, so I put him in a stake and also threw another horse in the barn in the race,” he said. “Now, this was before results were instantaneous, so the owner calls the barn after the race and asks my assistant, ‘How did we do in the stake?’ and my guy says, ‘We won’ and the owner says, ‘Great, tell Tom I’ll call him back in a little bit.’
“So, I’m waiting by the phone looking at it like it’s going to explode because it wasn’t the owner’s horse — it was the other horse. Sure enough he calls and says, ‘Hey, we won — great’ and I had to tell him that his horse ran fifth and my other horse won. His response was one word, ‘Huh?’
“So, the next day the phone rings again and it’s the owner and he says he’s taking his horses from me. It dawned on me then that, in Louisiana, ‘huh’ means you’re fired.’ ”
Amoss was down to one horse, but the phone rang the next day and it was John Franks on the other end. Mr. Franks asked Amoss if he wanted to train some horses for him. For those who don’t know, that’s like Warren Buffett calling and asking if you want to buy some stocks. Franks was the leading owner and breeder in Louisiana and the rest of the story is, as they say, history — a winning history.
In fact, since 2000, Amoss has the highest win percentage as a trainer in the U.S. among trainers with more than 1,000 starts. Amoss has won 27.68 percent of those starts — good for 2,132 wins. To put it another way, Amoss wins more races per start among active trainers than anybody in America. Handicappers write that down because that’s a fact — not a racetrack story.
The final chapter on Amoss’ career is far from being written and this weekend Amoss could add a few more exciting chapters as he will saddle Chris Dunn and Looch Racing’s War Story in the Louisiana Derby. As he said this week on a national media call, “most kids from New Orleans grow up with a dream of throwing the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl, but I always dreamed of winning the Louisiana Derby.”
Amoss had a close call running second with Mylute in 2013 and having the favorite Fly Cry in 1994. Amoss said he thinks this is his best shot at winning the Louisiana Derby and if he is right, War Story could be the beginning to a storied run to the Kentucky Derby for Tom Amoss.