IT COULD MEAN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A WINNER AND AN ALSO-RAN
The selection of a Thoroughbred racehorse for purchase requires research, skill and professional help, besides the obvious need for a good deal of luck. Whether the animal is acquired via the claim box, a winning auction bid or a handshake, the sheer cost of the transaction dictates that a good, long look be taken before the financial leap is made.
No doubt, the prospect of parting with a significant sum of money is cause for hesitation by even the boldest of owners. While this game is all about having fun, there is little pleasure in watching, much less funding, a consistent and expensive loser.
Consequently, the decision to buy a horse is always both complex and daunting.
What about the selection of the man or woman who will be charged with the responsibility of maximizing your acquisition’s career? Strangely, many folks in this sport look to only a handful of variables when deciding who will be the singular point person responsible for their horse’s success or failure.
The wealth of information available about trainers makes it easier to ferret out the conditioner for your horses than to select the horses themselves; provided the proper investigation is made. Here are some unique things to consider when looking for just the right trainer.
What’s a trainer? Society’s worst doctor received a four-year college degree, scraped through medical school, passed challenging boards and did a residency. In contrast, the making of a license trainer requires only the most rudimentary of ingredients. Consider that New York’s licensing rules for the occupation of assistant trainer require that the individual work on a backstretch or farm for three years, two of which as a groom or exercise rider, and pass a written and/or oral and practical exam.
Twelve short months later, this person qualifies to be a public trainer. The lesson to be learned is that the intellect, training, study and experience of conditioners vary widely among these licensed individuals.
The mere fact that the trainer has a license is far from an imprimatur as to his or her equine acumen. Just about anybody with a few years of dubious experience who can tighten a girth has what it takes to get a trainer’s license; what it takes to be a trainer is another story.
Good trainers don’t have to be rocket scientists. Still, highly successful journeymen trainers like Todd Pletcher and Barclay Tagg have college degrees in animal science. John Kimmel is a large animal veterinarian. Up and coming New York circuit trainer Leah Gyarmati was a doctoral candidate in theology.
While the school of hard knocks has traditionally produced some top trainers, the industry has become quite sophisticated in recent years. Knowledge of the efficacy of medications and supplements, testing protocols, therapeutic techniques, disease prevention, stable and transport issues, workers compensation regulations, liability insurance and a myriad of other factors require the 21st Century trainer to possess an intellect that allows far more than merely getting horses on the racetrack. A bright, educated trainer is always an asset.
THE TURNSTILE TRAINER
Years of experience in the racing game are no substitute for years of experience as a trainer. Be wary of the trainer who was recently among the ranks of jockey agents at your track, or just stopped being an exercise rider to open a public stable.
While everybody starts somewhere, and it’s laudable to give somebody new a try, quite often the training attempt is but a passing fancy between having the books of journeyman jockeys or necessitated due to temporary physical or mental exhaustion from the rut of riding multiple mounts on a seven morning a week schedule.
The neophyte conditioner’s commitment to his or her newfound profession should be deeply explored. Why the move to trainer now? Is equipment new or borrowed? Borrowed tack can easily be returned. Does he employ his own dedicated employees, or are they borrowed as well? Just how many owners does he or she have without your business? Has this individual made the leap into (and out of) training before? Be sure the individual is more concerned for your horse’s career than for his own opportunity to return to a past career. Ascertain whether training is a career path or merely a brief respite.
Statistics don’t lie; or do they? The old saying that there are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics, rings quite true in the area of horse racing. A trainer who ranks in the middle of the standings at a meet with only handful of horses may not be considered more than an average horseman.
Ponder, however, the bona fides of the conditioner with three or four times more wins, but with barns full of horses at different racing venues. Give anyone one hundred horses to train and they are bound to come up with a few gems. The truly adroit conditioner is the one with only a handful of horses who is holding her own at the track. She wins with what little she’s given, instead of winning just a little while being given everything the barn can hold.
Want a big time, nationally-ranked trainer to get you to the winner’s circle? Better check thoroughly into the assistant at the track where you’re stabled, because that person is the one who will be your trainer. Unless you have a quite precocious Thoroughbred, a trainer with hundreds of horses stabled at different tracks is not going to have much hands-on experience with your horse, or make anything other than major decisions concerning its care or welfare.
The busier the trainer, the better his win statistics, and the less time he has to improve your investment. The bottom line is to decide whether you want the top trainer at the circuit, or a conditioner who remembers your horse’s name, personality and abilities off the top of his head.
Apples fall close to their trees: We breed the best to the best and hope for the best. Why? Because of the cliché that success breeds success. Just where and from whom did your trainer come from? Did she spend time on a large, nationally known breeding farm? Did he cut his teeth with a Hall of Fame trainer?
There is no substitute for having a teacher who is legendary in his or her field, and that is just as true in the field of Thoroughbred training. If the individual worked for a major outfit or a master of the game for an appreciable period of time, he has at the very least a base knowledge of how a highly successful stable operation is managed and how decisions are arrived at regarding critical issues. Moreover, this individual possesses unique insight regarding evaluation of the quality of support personnel such as grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders, and other professionals such as vets, farriers and feed suppliers.
If he worked for the best, he more than likely worked with some of the best as well. The importance of hiring quality help can’t be overstated. The disciple of a legend also will have established a network of colleagues who operate on the same high level. This “family” is a valuable resource that can be utilized to help solve problems throughout his career. While the traits and characteristics of his former employer may not pass down in total, a commitment to maintain the legend’s same high standards would appear to bode well for any owner.
Selecting a trainer involves much more than statistical study and background investigation. Speaking with the prospective trainer is important. This means speaking with the prospect; not to or at him. Let the candidate do most of the talking.
Does this horseman possess the type of communication skills that will allow for intelligent and often frank discussion later on in the relationship? Is the trainer a know-it-all with whom you can’t get a reasonable question in edgewise? Does the trainer talk much at all?
The proverbial mushroom growing analogy is the mantra of some conditioners when dealing owners; “throw a lot of manure at ‘em and keep ‘em in the dark!” If this trainer’s idea of communication with owners is restricted to his sending of a monthly bill, it’s better to find that out before the relationship is forged.
Methods and techniques vary among professionals. It is clearly within the purview of the conditioner, not the owner, to dictate training regimen and associated matters. Still, a window into this trainer’s mode of operation should be opened well before the horse is placed in his barn.
Therapeutics should be a topic discussed extensively. Is this a predominantly hay, oats and water trainer, or are medication and supplements heavily relied upon? How about the use of chiropractic, acupuncture and other alternative therapies? Does this trainer believe in giving his horses a breather after some poor performances? What are the correct answers? Truthfully, there are none.
By asking the questions, you accomplish two things. First, you are ensuring that your trainer’s philosophy is generally in line with your own layman’s views on certain topics. Just as important, you are learning up-front what to expect by way of a regular invoice. For example, you might agree with a trainer who believes horses benefit from daily massage therapy. Now you know you’ll be paying for that!
Keep in mind the questions that should be asked are much different from, “Hey, do you think he can go seven furlongs?”
The prospective trainer doesn’t yet have a clue about your horse’s abilities, and should not be expected to respond in any meaningful way. Decisions about your specific horse can only be made on a day-to-day basis, and only after the halter has been turned over to your trainer.
What you are trying to discover in your pre-hire inquiries is how this person views the care and training of racehorses within a few relevant frames of reference. What he or she eventually thinks of your horse will be a constant topic of discussion soon enough.
There are considerations going directly to your horse’s well-being. For instance, why not obtain permission to spend a morning or two in the barn? Examine how personnel are supervised and how they interact with each other during normal training hours. What is the care and cleanliness with which the assistants, grooms and hot walkers work? Does everybody know his or her respective roles and duties? Are chores accomplished with systematic precision, and with the least bit of stress upon the animal?
With meaningful personal observation of a horse care facility, shortcomings can’t be explained away or faked. The integrity of the operation will present, warts and all. In states where trainers are required to carry workers’ compensation insurance, a yardstick for measuring the conduct of the stable is the insured’s experience rating.
This rating is a direct indication of the frequency and severity of accidents and injuries. If compensation premiums are high, what is being done to run the operation more safely than before? If humans are being hurt, invariably there is something wrong with the way they are handling the stable’s equines. Former clients of the trainer are obviously a fertile source of information, but avoid reliance on the response of a single individual.
Losing does not always equate with poor ability, know-how or business ethics. A disgruntled person speaks more from emotion than logic and reason. Take what you learn from one former connection and put it together with the opinions of others; only then can you formulate an opinion of your own.
What about the trainer’s day-rate? Well, what about it? It’s the cumulating dollar figure you are responsible for outside of special equipment, substances and procedures.
What does it say about a trainer’s skill? Virtually nothing. Pick trainers by predominantly comparing monthly costs and you will invariably select among either the cheapest or most expensive guys or gals on the backstretch.
Such a criteria is reflective of what the trainer wants and what the owner is willing to pay. It speaks nothing of a trainer’s effectiveness at getting horses under the wire ahead of others. Yes, you get what you pay for, but in this setting, what you get is either an expensive or inexpensive trainer – nothing more.
If you like a trainer based upon your research, study and observations, you should hire the person provided you can afford the day rate. The amount itself lacks any intrinsic value.
Buying a horse is the easiest accomplishment in the world. The only required tool is a checkbook. One should approach the purchase in the same way a railroad crossing is approached: Stop, look and listen. Find the trainer first. The horses will soon follow.
Chris Wittstruck is a two-time John Hervey Award winner for magazine writing on harness racing, is a Long Island lawyer and Thoroughbred owner and former horse ownership instructor at Hofstra University