By T. D. Thornton
Thoroughbred racing at New England's county fairs died in 2004 with the closure of the region's last-remaining half-mile track. Yet against long odds, the colorful, bombastically charismatic horseman who personified the hardscrabble spirit and ragtag allure of the storied bullrings managed to outlive the leaky-roof circuit where he thrived by more than a dozen years.
The death of Carlos “The King of the Fairs” Figueroa was confirmed Jan. 3 by the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. The Salem, N.H., resident was 88 and had been recently hospitalized because of complications from various illnesses, including pneumonia. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Racing enthusiasts outside of New England are unlikely to recognize Figueroa's name, and his “career statistics” posted on Equibase (846 wins) only go back as far as 1976, thus omitting the bulk of his training career, which dates to 1949.
But anyone who ever attended the old Massachusetts fairs circuit, which in its heyday was comprised of summertime stops at Marshfield, Weymouth, Brockton, Middleboro, Topsfield, Northampton, Great Barrington, and Berkshire Downs, knew the larger-than-life Figueroa well.
With his wide Panama hat, blindingly loud Hawaiian shirts, starched white pants, pencil-thin moustache, and dark, oversized sunglasses, Figueroa was easily recognizable as the unabashedly self-aggrandizing seeker of all forms of “fame and glory”–even if his notion of those attributes was rooted in long losing streaks or a “run 'em often” training mindset that might not pass muster in today's more welfare-centric era.
Figueroa's reign as the King of the Fairs (he coined the title himself and had large signs affixed to his barns to let everybody know) dates to at least 1963, when he purchased a no-hope horse named Shannon's Hope for $70 because he knew the animal would otherwise meet an untimely demise (or so the story goes).
Shannon's Hope went right out and won five races over the span of six racing dates on the fairs circuit in Massachusetts. Midway through the much-ballyhooed winning streak, the state animal welfare agency sent a representative to check on the well-being of the horse.
Shannon's Hope was sound, The King insisted, and to bolster his argument, he pointed out that history was on his side: Paul Revere, the Revolutionary War patriot, once rode a horse across the state with 200 pounds on his back to warn everyone that the British were coming, and Massachusetts made a hero out of him. Figueroa insisted that a statue should also be erected in his own likeness on the State House lawn because he had saved the life of Shannon's Hope, and, unlike Revere, only ran the horse on an even dirt strip with a light jockey on his back.
“That was Carlos,” said former Boston Globe reporter Michael Blowen, who was inspired to found the Old Friends retirement farm in Kentucky after volunteering, on a whim, to groom and hotwalk horses for Figueroa at Suffolk Downs in the 1990s. “No matter how upset you might be with him, no matter how much he frustrated you, no matter how much you thought he was crazy, his sense of humor and his joie de vivre were totally distinctive.”
Blowen continued, “Personally, I'm just very grateful, because if it wasn't for Carlos, we wouldn't have all these horses here at Old Friends, because he taught me everything. Just hanging around with him and being able to see horse racing from that end of the spectrum was completely invaluable. He was one of the brightest, funniest people I've ever met, and under other circumstances he might have been in the Hall of Fame. But those circumstances never showed themselves.”
“I talked to him a few days ago,” Blowen recounted, “and he said, 'I think this is the end of the road.' So he was fully aware of his circumstances.”
A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Figueroa first worked on the backstretches of New York tracks before shifting both his horse business and home to New England in the 1950s. Many of his Thoroughbreds raced in the brown-and-yellow striped silks of his wife, Pearl, who survives him.
For anyone who knew Figueroa at Rockingham Park and Suffolk Downs, the two main tracks at which he was stabled for decades, conversations with “King Carlos” often involved being shouted at in heavily accented English while trying to avoid his wildly gesticulating arms. He was forever phoning the Suffolk press box with good-natured demands for publicity and press coverage, and Figueroa liked to regale anyone who would listen with outlandish, difficult-to-document claims, like the time he allegedly singled all the winners in the very first Pick Six in the country when Rockingham offered the bet in the 1960s.
His annual win totals ranged from three to 40 in the 1970s and 1980s, but in the 1990s Figueroa began winning races in bunches and attracted several new clients, including the controversial horse owner Michael Gill. The New England Turf Writers Association honored Figueroa in 1994 with a lifetime achievement award, and around that time he occasionally started horses at Saratoga Race Course, which he immensely enjoyed even though his runners were hopelessly outclassed. Also during that decade, Figueroa mounted an unsuccessful bid for election to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, based on a platform that consisted entirely of legalizing a racino at Rockingham.
By the turn of the 21st century, Figueroa's on-track fortunes regressed to their previous means. His health began to decline, and his stable would be defunct by 2010.
In 2001, when Figueroa was in the midst of a 146-race losing streak that he claimed was a record, King Carlos embraced the notoriety, telling ESPN.com's Bill Finley, “This is a record that nobody will ever break. I've got lots of records for winning and now I got one for losing. To me, horse racing is a game. You win, you lose. I'm on a losing streak. As long as I'm alive, I'm happy.”