Alwaysmining, Rubley arrive at Preakness

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There’s horsepower, and then there’s horse power.

Trainer Kelly Rubley, who will saddle Alwaysmining in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, knows both. She grew up between Syracuse and Watertown in upstate New York part of a family with no connection to a horse, but somehow found one anyway and – after obtaining four college degrees and working in middle-school education – created a career in Thoroughbred racing. In her sixth year as a trainer, she has a Preakness runner. Rubley laughed, and shook her head a bit, when asked about how it all began.

“I don’t know. The first time I set eyes on them I had to be with them,” she said of horses. “There was a horse who lived in the field across the street from my house and my mother could never find me because I was out there with all of her sugar.”

Eventually, Rubley begged her parents for a riding lesson. They probably figured she meant just one. The first lesson turned into lessons, then a job at the riding stable (to pay for more lessons), then a horse, then horses, horse shows, all of it. Rubley rode hunters and jumpers, and later moved to eventing – all the while pursuing a career in education. She’s got an associate’s degree in accounting, a bachelor’s in biology, and master’s degrees in secondary education and administration from SUNY Oswego. All that education turned to a job teaching eighth-grade science for seven years and then working as an administrator for three more in New York. She still rode, but Rubley had a career with a benefits, a pension, weekends off.

And then chucked it all for a job exercising foxhunters in Unionville, Pa. She got paid to ride horses in a part of the country she’d discovered while competing in three-day events at Fair Hill, Md.

“I used to travel down here every weekend to compete and kind of fell in love with the area,” she said, “and when I decided I couldn’t deal with education anymore I took a job on a farm.”

She rode foxhunters, kept them fit for her bosses and got the chance to ride with the Cheshire Foxhounds. About 20 miles north of Fair Hill, the Unionville area is horse country – home to Hall of Fame Thoroughbred trainer Jonathan Sheppard, Olympic three-day event rider Phillip Dutton and dozens of others in a myriad of disciplines. Even if they’re involved in different sports, the people cross over and gravitate toward one another. It’s common to see event riders galloping on the tracks at Fair Hill, and at least a few exercise riders with show horses or eventers on the side, and Rubley eventually got the chance to gallop racehorses for trainer Barclay Tagg at Fair Hill Training Center.

“They were the first racehorses I rode and I loved it, right away,” she said. The job with Tagg, which came shortly after the retirement of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide in 2007, opened a door. “I didn’t like the education world at all and I’ve always liked horses so the goal was to figure out what I was going to do that involved horses.”

So she learned all she could from Tagg, a former steeplechase jockey whose early experience in racing came with Hall of Fame trainer Frank Whiteley. Tagg had 100 horses then, and Rubley went from exercise rider to assistant trainer while following the stable’s schedule between Florida, New York and Fair Hill – asking questions all along.

“Just about everything,” she said about what she learned from Tagg. “We checked legs together every morning and I could always go to him with questions. It was a great place to learn. He taught me everything I know about legs and he could still teach me I’m sure. It’s not even possible for him to teach me everything he knows.”

AlwaysminingMK2Alwaysmining heads to the Preakness off six consecutive wins. Maggie Kimmitt photoRubley took a job with another veteran horseman Jimmy Toner and ran his barn at Fair Hill until making her debut as a trainer in 2014. Her first win came at Pimlico, April 13, 2014, with St. Alban’s Boy. She won five races that year, 12 in 2015, then 17, 35 and 38 last year while topping $1.7 million in earnings. She rents one or two barns (depending on the time of year) at Fair Hill, and sent some horses to Tampa Bay Downs over the winter, for a string that includes 40-50 horses. In 2017, Monongahela won five races and placed in four more from 10 starts for Rubley. Last year, Divisidero won a Grade 3 and finished fourth (beaten less than a length at 43-1) in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Rubley’s career has been on fast forward thanks to good results, good horses and good fortune.

Alwaysmining somehow touches all three.

He was purchased by Greg and Caroline Bentley’s Runnymede Racing out of a maiden win at Laurel Park last June, and finished fifth in his first start for the new connections in August. When trainer Eddie Graham gave up a job with the Bentleys, who have a farm near Unionville, they turned to Rubley – mostly because she was renting stalls in a barn they own at Fair Hill.

“Why don’t we give some thought to the person who’s renting our stalls?” said Greg Bentley, on how the conversation of finding a trainer for Alwaysmining started. “She’s done a great job. Give credit to Kelly for producing the horse and developing him in a way that attends to the mental and the physical side of everything.”

Bred in Maryland by Poppet Pitts, Alwaysmining lost his first start for Rubley (on the turf in the Laurel Futurity) but has won six in a row – ripping through an allowance race, and stakes scores in the Maryland Juvenile Championship, Heft, Miracle Wood, Private Terms and Federico Tesio. The latter, an 11 1/2-length romp, earned a free entry in the Preakness to complete a plan mapped out by Rubley, the Bentleys and racing manager Joe Cassidy early this year. By design, the map did not go to Kentucky.

“The horse is a gelding so that kind of gave us a little more leverage to not try to put him in the Derby because he’s not looking at a stallion career when he retired,” Rubley said. “We sat down with the owners and the racing manager and we decided that the longevity of this horse was the key. We wanted to be able to run him this summer and through the fall and next year. If you follow the Derby trail every year, a lot of those horses they run in the Derby and that’s their last race or they don’t show up until the next year so we thought we were doing what’s right for the horse and I think we have.”

Alwaysmining seems fine with the decision, thriving in his races and while training at home. The long-striding dark bay skipped the uncertainty of early Derby preps, bypassed the hoopla of the Derby itself and runs in a Grade 1 race an hour van ride from his home base. While on top of his game.

“I think his confidence level is sky-high right now,” Rubley said. “He’s got an air about him, he’s very proud of himself. He knows he’s good.”

That air doesn’t necessarily come out around the barn, where Alwaysmining wouldn’t necessarily be picked out as the big horse. He’s the friendly one, not the wild one. He’s the one looking for a treat, not the one looking for trouble.

“He’s chill,” said Rubley, with a pat on the horse’s neck while blacksmith Mike Lopata set some new shoes Wednesday morning. “He’s the last one to the track every day walking out there. He loves to train when he’s doing it, but he has nowhere to be in a hurry.”

Until the starting gate opens.

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Hey Kelly Rubley, what are the similarities between teaching eighth graders and training racehorses?

Short Answer: “They’re much cuter. And I don’t even mind when their noses are snotty.”

Long Answer: “Horses are very similar to adolescent children and I say that kind of joking, but it’s true. They’re all trying to express themselves and figuring how far they can push things and it’s the same with horses. They’re young, impressionable minds and so it’s kind of my job to work that into a routine that works for everyone.”