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A Few Minutes With WPT Trainer Kip Elser

November 11, 2011 · By Erin Birkenhauer · Share

Kip Elser does what he loves to do for a living. He has been intimately involved in various components of the Thoroughbred racing business since the late 1970s. A former steeplechase rider, he expanded his resume to include horse breaking and training and sales preparation, and has enjoyed many years as a leading sales consignor while maintaining his operations at Kirkwood Stables out of the Springdale Race Course in Camden, SC.

 
This year, West Point made the decision to send all of our yearlings and layups to Kip at Kirkwood, a full-service Thoroughbred breaking and training facility equipped to develop young horses and rehabilitate horses of racing age prior to returning them to the racetrack.

Q. Where were you born and raised?
A. I was born and grew up in Paoli, Pennsylvania

Q. How did you become interested in horse racing?
A. I hunted and showed as a kid, and my dad bought a timber horse to have some fun with in the early 60s. I was about 10, and that’s what started the steeplechase riding and all that.  

Q. Who are the best horses you’ve been around?
A. I was really lucky when I was a kid in my late teens or early 20s to work for Frank Whiteley Jr., John Russell when he
had Tri Jet and Susan's Girl, and later for Lucien Lauren when he had Secretariat and Riva Ridge.

 
I was going to school at John Hopkins University for a degree in comparative literature, and Frank let me get on horses in the mornings for him before I went to school. it was in the early days of flying horses, so John wanted to be on the plane when he sent Tri Jet and Susan’s Girl East. He gave his gallop boy the car to drive East and the boy never made it - no car, no gallop boy - so I got on a few for him as well, and Lucien let me get on some early in the mornings. I worked for Frank again down here in Camden after I graduated.

They were some great, great horsemen with some incredible horses. To be around them was unbelievable. I got on Secretariat a couple of times; I wasn’t his regular gallop boy but back then there was always a day when somebody didn’t show up. There were just some really good pedigrees back then. I remember Con Game, the last of the Buckpasser fillies - what a gorgeous filly. I can see her today. She was like a classic Richard Stone Reeves painting.

Q. You’ve done particularly well with fillies, including recent stars Plum Pretty and Winter Memories. Have you made any favorites over the years?
A. My two all-time favorites are Sharp Cat and Memories of Silver. They just had such personalities. They were different from the usual horses. They didn’t necessarily train spectacularly all the time, but they had nearly-human personalities. So talented, and so smart. They were a joy to be around.
 
Q. You’re quite the world traveler. Tell us about the places you’ve gone while working with horses.
A. When I was a kid, Toby Balding in England was - and still is - very much a mentor to me. I had some wonderful experiences while working for him. He sent me all over to look at horses - France, Ireland, whenever somebody called and said, ‘I have a horse for sale’ and Toby was busy, he’d send me. That was back in the early 70s, I guess. Just a wonderful time.
 
Then about 15 years ago, we started putting groups of 2-year-olds together to sell at the breeze-up sale at Tattersalls. Over the years, that’s been wonderful experience - to train at Newmarket for a couple of weeks every spring in a completely different atmosphere and different system. We’ve had plenty of fun and a lot of good horses here, but it’s just fun to get out and do something out of the ordinary.

Q. Any recent trips?
A. I just got back from South Africa about two weeks ago. They have a very different system for their 2-year-old sales there; they have the breezes in different places. The main one is at Summerhill Stud (they’re the major consignors at the sales), and they have one at Johannesburg. They had a panel of several trainers, a couple of agents and commentators, me as a visitor, and we sat there and watched the breeze show, then had a panel discussion and gave our selections for the sale on their equivalent of the evening racing wrap-up show. It was really a cool day to sit and watch 175 horses breeze in front of you, but you’re sitting with all the leading trainers down there, then just really good agents and the head TV commentator and handicapper, just a great day.

Q. You’ve really enjoyed the chance to travel, haven’t you?
A. Well, this game will take you anywhere in the world if you let it. There are so many places where it’s all about the horses, and if you love horses and have respect for racing and how hard people have to work to get here and what goes into it, you’re welcomed with open arms all over the world.

Q. What makes your facility in Camden superior to the typical racetrack model?
A. These places were designed for the horse. They were built back in the 1930s when land price wasn’t a consideration, and neither was labor. You could design a facility however you wanted to take care of and train your horses. The other factors just weren’t there. This was and still is a superior idea. It’s a much less hectic environment focused on enabling the horse to grow and thrive and therefore reach its utmost potential.

Q. Along those lines, what’s the key to bringing a racehorse back from the layup to successful competition?
A. In the old days we called it freshening, and some people still do. These horses presumably showed something, otherwise you wouldn’t be giving them the time off and trying to bring them back - but they’ve gotten hurt where they were. So along with the physical rehab, if you’re going to freshen them, I like to do it differently than going down the horse path and getting “X” number of miles into them jogging and galloping with a rail on each side. There are only so many miles each horse has in them and if you can put varied miles in them to get to the same point, you’re saving the drilling and hard work for when they get back to the racetrack. A lot of times these horses are tired, physically and mentally, when they come here. That’s why people send them here, and it’s our job to help them get well again.

Q. Do you still ride?
A. Very little. I get on the pony occasionally.

Q. Who gets your vote for Horse of the Year?
A. I thought the Breeders’ Cup was a wonderful two days of racing, but it did more to muddy the championship scene than to clarify it this year. For a 3-year-old, that’s when you step out of your division and have to run against older horses in the Classic to seal the deal for year-end honors. When Drosselmeyer jumped up and won it, that opportunity went away, but he himself didn’t do enough this season to secure Horse of the Year honors. I can’t argue against Havre de Grace, but you could also make a good case for Tizway with him winning the Met and the Whitney, I could see that even though he missed the Breeders’ Cup due to his injury.

Honestly, I think Cape Blanco (seen right) would be a legitimate vote as well. The Europeans have the best horses in the world now, and when they send a basically top-line horse like Cape Blanco over and he does what he did, that’s impressive.

Q. What do you do in your spare time when you’re not working with horses?
A. Not a lot. This is my chosen profession, this isn’t something I do to try to make a living, then get away from. I’ll read - my favorite books are historical novels - and watch HRTV and TVG..

Q. What’s the last book you read?
A. Assegai, a historical novel about South Africa by Wilbur Smith.

Q. Where’s your favorite restaurant? You’ve been a lot of places so this one might be tough.
A. My dad told me years ago, ‘Never get room service. Every town you’re visiting, make clear end to your day, shower, change, and go find somewhere to eat.’ Saratoga Springs obviously has lots of good restaurants; Sperry’s would be the best for the longest time, but in the last few years the Beekman Street Bistro has really been enjoyable as well. Lexington has a lot more good restaurants than a lot of people give it credit for; Azur and Dudley’s are two of the top choices, but there are lots of good places there. Baltimore has some wonderful restaurants, and so does New Orleans, where I’d have to recommend a stop at Commander’s Palace. I could write a restaurant guide!

Q. Where’s your favorite non-racing vacation destination?
A. If I was forced to go somewhere not racing-related, I would go to Sun Valley, where I got on skis for the first time after 50 (and loved it), or I would go to Eleuthera Island off the coast of Florida. They’re two completely different places, but you can get TVG at both.  

Q. Does your wife Helen like horses as much as you do?
A. She does, for sure. She’s a great help to me, but she has the good sense not to work with me every day. She’s a huge help, but she keeps her sanity and mine by not being involved with the business on a daily basis.

Q. What’s the main goal at Kirkwood?
A. To do the best we can by every specific horse, and hopefully we have runners leave here -  young or old - that go on to successful careers. That’s not very complicated, but that’s what we’re trying to accomplish. With some horses we go forward day-by-day, but with other horses we select a target and work backwards, to see if we can help the horse make it there.

 

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