Stop by a racetrack. Stroll past a barn. Peer down the shed row past the horses nibbling on hay. Look into the office. See that lady on the phone, talking with one of the owners about an upcoming race for the next budding star? That gentleman marking up charts that will determine each horse’s workout activity for the following morning? The person leaving the office, entering a stall, and feeling a filly’s legs to see if the vet needs to be called? That’s the trainer. In horse racing, you need one.
If you want to know the job description for a trainer, here’s the skinny:
1. Work with the horses daily, getting them fit and mentally ready to race – and identify injuries and sickness that would prevent them from racing.
2. Work with owners to pick out races for those horses to run in (there’s a smorgasbord of choices at every race track, at every age, each sex, and each level of talent).
3. Pick the jockeys to ride your horses.
4. Make sure your team of helpers (grooms, exercise riders, assistant trainers) is taking care of and improving the stable’s horses.
5. Communicate with the owners of the horses on how items 1-4 are going.
That’s pretty much what a trainer does. Generally speaking, and it’s not much of a secret in the game, trainers are involved in racing to spend their time around horses, the first or second love of their lives behind their spouse and kids. Time spent with owners can be a necessary evil for many trainers – because, after all, the owners pay the bills.
The great Charlie Whittingham, a hall of fame trainer, beloved in the game, and a two time winner of the Kentucky Derby, once said words to these effect: “Owners are like mushrooms–you keep em in the dark and you shovel a little @&*# their direction from time to time.” Basically, ol’ Charlie was saying in his typical no-nonsense style that owners need to step out of the way and let trainers do their jobs. “Leave it to the experts” is not a bad philosophy as long as you choose your expert (trainer) with care. Then everybody will be generally happy.
That’s what we try to do at West Point Thoroughbreds, fitting the needs of our clients across the country with the characteristics that make for the best horse trainers. We also try to match the trainers with the horses. Here are the top five questions we ask ourselves when picking a trainer for our racing partnerships:
1. Does this trainer win?
And we don’t mean every once in a blue moon, we want trainers who have demonstrated over time that they can win their share of big races at the top tracks in the country. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re winning at a 20% clip or better (you do that for several decades and you’re talking Hall of Fame numbers). We like trainers that experiment with race choices and aren’t afraid to risk their lofty winning percentage to take creative directions with our horses rather than the safe path every time. You look at our trainer roster, for example, and you’ll find many of our trainers don’t win at the 20% level (they also don’t win at the 5% level either). But they are Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Kentucky Oaks and Breeders Cup-winning trainers. That’s plenty good for us.
2. Is this trainer a solid racing citizen?
It’s all well and good when you win your share of all races and often stand in the winners circle for the biggest races. But are you constantly facing charges from various racing authorities for breaking the rules? If you’re in trouble for frequent medication positives with your horses or any other bends and stretches of the racing laws, no thanks. Does this mean that our trainers have never been fined or disciplined for rules violations? No. When you run a lot of horses as many of our trainers do, you make honest mistakes from time to time. But if there’s a pattern of trouble, indicating a willingness or desire to take an unfair edge, we’ll pass.
3. Does this trainer enjoy working with racing partnerships?
Do they “get it” when it comes to opening their arms and their barns to the people who write the checks and keep racing going? This is a critical question for any racing syndicate or partnership company. If you have a trainer that wants to go hide in the office or mutter a few unintelligible grunts when owners come around and want to see their four-legged stars, you can’t have that trainer working for you. The experience of owning a racehorse with a racing partnership depends a great deal on how fun it is to visit the barn and spend time with your horse and trainer. You don’t need to have Jay Leno taking care of your stable, but you need an individual who is happy to share the horses and his knowledge with the owners. Not all trainers are comfortable with doing this. God Bless them, but we can’t hire them.
4. Does a trainer have a specific reputation or location that would help your horse win?
Now we’re getting into the nuts and bolts of how we select specific trainers for specific horses. At West Point Thoroughbreds, we have about 10 trainers that we use across the country – so how do we choose?
a) Supposing we’ve bought a horse that was bred in California or New York and qualifies for restricted races that limit the competition to CA or NY-breds, etc. No-brainer – we’ll send that horse to a trainer who races a bunch in California or in New York or wherever.
b) How about if we’ve bought a horse that really looks from its family tree (called its “pedigree”) that it will excel on a specific racing surface (turf, dirt and synthetic are the choices in North America). We have trainers in our roster that have had wonderful success on dirt, but not so much on turf. We have trainers that race nearly year round at tracks that are synthetic surfaces. Again, no-brainer, you send a horse that fits those surface choices to a trainer who does well on them and bases his stable at a track that provides them. Graham Motion (pictured at right with graded stakes winner Untamed Domain) is extremely successful with turf horses. Not to say he doesn’t have graded stakes winners on dirt or synthetic (remember Animal Kingdom?), but we’re more apt to send horses with tremendous turf influence in their pedigrees to Mr. Motion.
c) What if you have a horse whose pedigree looks like a sprinter rather than a longer distance runner? We have trainers that excel with sprinters but not as much with longer distance horses. We’ve looked at the data and we do see a pattern that helps us choose for specific horses.
d) Has the trainer worked with a relative of your horse before? West Point Thoroughbreds has picked trainers in a number of cases because they’ve trained siblings and cousins of our horse and have shown an ability to work with that particular DNA code. Oftentimes you know the quirks and special traits of horses that descend from certain fathers (called “sires” or “stallions”) and mothers (called “mares”). If you know what to expect both mentally and physically from a specific family tree, you start with an advantage.
5. Is your trainer speedy or pokey to get your horse to the races?
Again, a single owner, or in our case a racing partnership, needs to know if the person calling the shots with your horse is the giddyup or whoa type of individual. Younger horses, specifically 2-year-olds, can begin their racing careers in the spring of their 2-year-old year. And when you watch races in April, May, June a lot of the same trainers’ names pop up. They’ve got no problems with firing a young horse out of the starting gate when it seems ready to roll. Then there are trainers whose names that rarely appear on the program with younger horses early in the year. They believe in taking more time, developing the athlete in a much more deliberate way. Which way is the right one? Sorry, no correct answer here, they can both be successful. But you’re a dumb-dumb if you send a young horse whose family tree and physical maturation indicate they’re ready to roll to a “slow and steady” trainer – and vice versa.
Picking a trainer is a lot like picking a spouse. When it comes to the racing portion of your life, they are the most important person in the world aside from you. Choose poorly and you might be heading towards a quickie divorce or dysfunctional relationship. Choose well and it’s a lifetime of teamwork and domestic bliss.
In case you missed the link up top, Click here to see our team of trainers.