In an age in which mega-stables dominate the racing landscape, trainer Tom Amoss is not interested in joining them.
The opportunity to grow was certainly there after Serengeti Empress, a diamond in the rough Amoss discovered for $70,000 at Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale, developed into the 2019 Kentucky Oaks winner while amassing more than $2.1 million in earnings.
Amoss quickly realized his focus needed to be on increasing quality, not quantity. “When the barn grew to 100 at one point, we just didn’t do as good a job. There is no other way to put it,” admitted Amoss, 60.
He operates with a cap of about 80 horses. Serengeti Empress helped him attract new owners, some with significant spending power. They allowed him to become an increasing presence in allowance and stakes races. He was known through much of his 33-year career for his ability to improve inexpensive horses obtained in claiming races.
Amoss’ determination to be hands-on with every horse was rewarded July 11 when Isolate drew off by six lengths in the Tale of the Cat Stakes at Saratoga to provide the trainer with his 4,000th victory. It only added to the satisfaction of his achievement that 4-year-old Isolate is owned by Patti and Dean Reeves, new clients who came aboard last autumn.
Amoss has not lost sight of everyone and everything that led to the milestone. “I fully understand what this accomplishment means,” he said. “It involves so many people, the people who taught me along the way before I became a trainer, all the people I worked with, especially the support of owners and athletes. It’s really a group accomplishment.”
Rival trainer Al Stall Jr. and his family are high on the list. Amoss and Stall became friends when they attended the same grammar school in New Orleans. Amoss’s parents were not involved in racing. Stall’s father, Albert, was immersed in the sport as chairman of the Louisiana State Racing Commission, a position he held for more than two decades. Albert also owned horses.
Amoss and Stall developed a keen interest in racing before they were teenagers. “There were no cellphones and three channels on television,” Stall said. “So we dove into racing head-long.”
When the Stall family invited Amoss to tour the barn area at Fair Grounds, that visit was transformational. “When I went out to the barn and saw all that went into a day and all the care and attention paid to a horse, it was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “I knew then that I wanted to train horses. I loved everything about it.”
Amoss was taking deep dives into past performances by the time he was 13. “I got so much pleasure in getting the next day’s Racing Form and going through it, figuring out how the race would run,” he said. “It was a big puzzle to me, who was going to go to the front, who was going to come from behind. Is there a bunch of pace in the race? There was nothing more enjoyable than mapping out how I thought a race would be run and then watching it unfold just like I thought it would.”
Even if their son’s desire to train Thoroughbreds seemed a bit odd to his parents, Berthe and Walter James, their only insistence was that he attend college first. He graduated from Louisiana State University in 1983 – and hurried to the track to be a hotwalker. He always understood the need to learn every aspect of the industry, no matter the task.
Along the way, Amoss developed a keen eye for a horse that led to his purchase of Serengeti Empress on behalf of Dr. Joel Politi. She was the filly that proved he could win the big one.
“She’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Amoss said. “I can’t put into words what she’s meant to me other than she’s opened so many doors for me and allowed me to have that big moment you want on a resume.”
Dean Reeves is pleased to be among Amoss’ new clients. He welcomes his plain-spoken approach. “Tom just tells you like it is, and that’s really good,” he said. “You don’t just sit there telling someone their horse is pretty good just to not hurt their feelings. We can be very up front. That way, we make better decisions.”
Perhaps Stall is in the best position to appreciate how long the road has been to Amoss’s 4,000 victories and the fulfillment of a boyhood dream.
“If you know how this game works,” Stall said, “it’s an unbelievable number.”