By Chuck Simon
Much has changed on the south Florida racing scene over the last two decades, but one constant has been the presence of longtime trainer and FTHA Board member David Fawkes. A Chicago-area native, Fawkes got his start in racing as a teenager galloping horses at the local tracks for family friend Don Gibbons, who “worked for one of the top owners in Illinois when racing in that state was thriving.”
Eventually he made his way down to Florida with noted Midwestern trainer Christine Jenks when the outfit travelled south for the winter months. Fawkes was a natural on the back of a horse and figured that he’d take a shot at being a jockey; while he won his first race in the irons, he quickly learned that wasn’t going to be his calling.
“I was a brutal jock,” Fawkes said with a laugh. “I could gallop a horse as good as anyone, but riding in the afternoon was a whole different story.”
Still, he gave it a go for close to a year before going back to being an exercise rider. He was also doing odd jobs such as working in the valet parking lot at Calder, being a vet assistant for longtime South Florida mainstay Dr. George Burch, and fixing lawn mowers.
“I even worked for a year driving a beer truck,” Fawkes remembered. “I had just gotten married and had a kid to feed and only working as a freelance gallop boy wasn’t cutting it. So I galloped in the morning – at Calder we started really early – and as soon as I was off my last horse I’d race up to Pompano to grab the beer truck and make deliveries the rest of the day.”
The jack of all trades was still repairing mowers when got his chance to train. Dr. Daniel Frazier, who raced under the Pyrite Stables banner, gave him four horses in the summer of 1998. Fawkes’ first start was on June 26 at Calder with, fittingly, another first-time starter, a filly named Dinner Speaker. The two broke their maidens together. His second starter also won, and when he wheeled Dinner Speaker back 13 days later and she won again, Fawkes was three for three and his fledgling training career was off and running.
Fawkes’ next break came when “a guy walks in the barn out of the blue” in the fall of 1998 and he winds up training one of the best horses of his career, Forty One Carats.
Owned by Jack Hammer and Walter New, the Florida-bred son of Tactical Advantage hadn’t shown much in three previous starts before Fawkes took over the training, but he cruised to a 13-length maiden score in his first start with him at Gulfstream Park. He wound up running second in the Grade III Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah that spring before going on to win the Indiana Derby at Hoosier Park and the Grade II Pegasus at the Meadowlands. Forty One Carats set a track record at Calder in the Grade II Smile Stakes as a four year old, covering the six-furlong distance on the main track in 1:08.95. He retired the following year after amassing earnings of $828,843.
“He was my first really good horse, he helped to put me on the map and, most important, Walter New has had horses with me ever since and still has some in the barn now, all these years later,” said Fawkes.
Fawkes has had a number of graded-stakes quality horses in the years since Forty One Carats, first at Calder and, since 2013, at Gulfstream Park. His favorite was Duke of Mischief, who he said was like having a big Jack Russell in the barn. Fawkes laughed when he mentioned that his daughter Natalie used to ride Duke of Mischief around the barn when she was 12 and he was still racing. “A cool horse” was how he described the stakes winner of $1,905,747.
“We have won a lot of big races over the years,” Fawkes said, then proceeded to list them off the top of his head. “The Grade I Delaware Handicap, the Grade I Personal Ensign, the Grade I Ogden Phipps twice. The Grade II Oaklawn Handicap, the Grade II Madison at Keeneland.”
He has won a total of 27 graded stakes in all, and he didn’t name perhaps the biggest race that he has won to date, the 2010 Grade I Breeders Cup Sprint with Harold Queen’s homebred Big Drama. The multiple graded-stakes winning son of Montbrook, a Florida-bred like most of Fawkes’ other graded-stakes winners, swept the Florida Stallion Series as a two year old. He capped off the three-race series with an emphatic five-length win in the In Reality division before shipping to Louisiana to capture the $750,000 Grade III Boyd Gaming Delta Jackpot to complete his two-year-old season with five wins in six starts, including four stakes victories.
Big Drama came back as a three year old to run second in the Grade II Swale at Gulfstream Park before running fifth behind Rachel Alexandra in the 2009 Grade I Preakness at Pimlico. As a four year old he won the Grade II Smile Stakes on Summit of Speed day at Calder before running second in a pair of Grade Is at Saratoga. He only raced one time that fall, but it was at Churchill Downs in the $2,000,000 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, which he took in wire-to-wire fashion to give Calder’s David Fawkes a win on American racing’s biggest stage. When his racing career was over, Big Drama had won 11 races, 10 stakes and $2,746,060.
In his 24 years of training, Fawkes has 1,098 wins from 6,722 starters with purse earnings of $39,438,787 and is a regular on the leading trainers’ list at Gulfstream Park. He has been in the top 100 nationally in earnings nine times in his career. Most of that money has been earned by horses bred and raced in the state of Florida. Of the top 14 money earners that Fawkes has had in his barn, an amazing 13 of them are Florida-bred, with only Walter New’s homebred mare, Flying Circle, a multiple stakes winner, hailing from Kentucky, though she spent the majority of her career racing in south Florida.
“Obviously I have had a lot of success with Florida-breds, trained for many prominent Florida breeders and I believe in the program. One of my goals being on the FTHA Board is to try to improve the relationship between the Florida horsemen, Gulfstream Park, and the FTBOA to ensure that the Florida-bred program continues to be prominent, “ Fawkes explained. “It’s important for the racing program at Gulfstream to have a strong state-bred presence.”
Fawkes, who currently serves as Secretary for the FTHA Board, added, “I’m a Florida guy.” In addition to his dedication to the Thoroughbred industry, he is an avid fisherman and often spends the dark days on Mondays and Tuesdays trolling the waters around the Florida Keys for all sorts of sporting fish, with fellow FTHA Board member Ronnie Spatz occasionally along for the ride. Fawkes’ daughter Natalie, who has a trainers’ license of her own, just finished her spring semester of college. Her father proudly reports that she has a “4.0 grade point average.”
Fawkes has a vested interest in South Florida racing. “I want what’s best for Florida racing now and in the future,” he said. “My focus on the Board is backside issues including making our racing surfaces as safe as possible and facilitating changes that help make Gulfstream Park an attractive option for owners and trainers. I’ve been on the Board for I think eight years now and we have seen a lot of changes in racing in that time both nationally and locally. We all need to work together as horsemen and with Gulfstream Park to make sure that south Florida racing is as good as it can be.”
Photo 1 and 2: David Fawkes
Photo 3: Duke of Mischief, Coglianese Photos
Photo 4: Big Drama, Breeders’ Cup Photo
Photo 5: Win # 1,000, Laura King Photo
Photo 6: Natalie Fawkes