Jack Fisher is a master of the quick draw. As he paces down the aisle of the bank barn at his Butler, Md., farm, he reaches toward his right hip. He grasps, wields and answers before his cell phone rings a second time.
“Yeah, yep, good, OK, see you then,” he says, before holstering his side arm just as quickly.
Fisher steps across the stone threshold and out into sunlight. He pivots, making a half turn to the left and looks in the direction of Troy Lively, who is unloading a stack of fresh straw bales under the overhang of the shed row across the courtyard.
“New toy will be here this afternoon,” Fisher shouts.
Fisher is a horseman at heart, but tractors are on his mind this morning. Lively, a retired jump jockey, is the facilities manager at Kingfisher Farm. He’s almost as excited about the new tractor as his boss – but not quite.
“This dealership will let you try every make before you buy,” Fisher says, in a hushed tone, as if he were sharing a secret. “That’s something you have to take advantage of.”
At a stage in his career when most top trainers work from an office and watch from the rail, Fisher, 57, prefers to get his hands dirty in the barn and train from the tack.
The National Steeplechase Association’s 13-time leading trainer, Fisher has exceeded $1 million in earnings five times. From 2012-19, he held onto the leading trainer title for eight consecutive years. In 2020, he finished second to now-retired Jonathan Sheppard in races and purses (by just $4,080), but still managed to take home an Eclipse Award with Bruton Street’s Moscato (left, winning the Temple Gwathmey. Tod Marks Photo). This year, three of the top 10 rated steeplechasers in the country are under his roof.
No active jump trainer in the United States comes close to matching Fisher’s success.
I join Fisher in his office, where he sits down, leans forward, slides on a dusty pair of suede moccasins and dons a ski helmet.
“It keeps my head warm – and I have to wear one because you’re here taking videos,” he says wryly.
Fisher picks up a halter and lead shank, kicks an errant girth out of the way and walks out to the paddock to help a groom catch her cagey charge. Not in a hurry, he ambles toward the wide-eyed bay gelding, gives him a soft pat on the neck and slips the lead shank over his poll and around his throatlatch. A stroke on the nose and another pat, the gelding drops his head and licks his lips as Fisher slides the halter over his ears before leading him to his stall.
Around the corner, assistant trainer Sandra Webb picks up a dry-erase marker and writes down the plan for the next set on the weathered green-and-white vinyl work board. With 32 horses in training, Webb has developed a system that Fisher’s riders can understand at a glance. Magnets with each horse’s name are stacked in the far-left column. A 31-by-32 row-and-column grid, one box for each horse for each day of the month, fills the board. Webb records a number, 1 through 5, which corresponds to the type of work the horse will do that day: hacking, jogging, galloping, breezing or jump schooling.
Fisher and jockey Graham Watters tack up their mounts, Topsfield and Lemonade Thursday, respectively, for the 9:00 set. Grooms ferry the previous set’s horses to and from the wash stall and cart off dirty tack to be cleaned. Rider Emme Fullilov jumps on Gostisbehere, Hadden Frost mounts Make A Stand, Rachael Lively swings a leg over New Member and Aaron Davis hops on Lord Justice.
The Thoroughbred caravan makes its way, single file, past Rosco the free-range donkey and past a content pair of horses seeking out the first green sprigs of spring grass in paddock on the left. Up a hill and around the turn, they pick up a jog in front of the main house, a brick Georgian with four prominent chimneys.
After a 15-minute jog through the woods and around the jump field, Fisher steps into a gallop as the others fall in behind. The cowboy bumper sticker on Fisher’s ski helmet heads to the wind like the figurehead on a galleon as he leads the six-horse armada up the gallop. Hooked over his shoulder, his chin strap bounces in the breeze.
“That hill makes winners,” he says as he pulls up at the top.
Back at the barn, the crew jumps down, strips off their tack and queues up in front of the round pen.
“Roll and bath, everyone’s going for a roll and a bath,” Fisher calls out to the team.
They know the drill.
Next up, the 10 o’clock set. Fisher puts me up on Bruton Street’s Preseli Rock. The Irish-bred son of Flemensfirth won two of his last four total U.S. starts, including the 2017 Steeplethon at the International Gold Cup (right, Tod Marks Photo). Sidelined with an injury but now back in top form, Hadden Frost will pilot the rangy chestnut over the Maryland Hunt Cup’s 22 timber fences later this month.
I jump up, knot the reins and meet Watters and Frost outside. Watters, a native of Navan, Ireland, sits astride Storm Team. Englishman Frost rides the veteran, and stable favorite, Schoodic.
We clip along on slack reins past a stand of hemlocks and up the back driveway. Preseli Rock swivels his ears, stretches his neck and looks to the left, where a dump truck grinds down Butler Road. On the right, champion novice Snap Decision looks out from a corner stall in the new barn. He peeks out over the stall screen and whinnies. Schoodic replies.
Frost leads and picks up a jog once we reach the first field of corn stubble. We wander and weave through alleyways between fallow fields. Preseli Rock and I lag several lengths behind Watters, my knuckles pressed into the crest of his neck, slight tension in the reins, calves squeezing.
“Don’t let him fool you,” Watters says, turning around in the tack, “He’s plenty of horse on the gallops.”
Frost and Watters cajole their mounts to a walk just before a hardwood spinney. Preseli Rock doesn’t take any convincing – I simply drop the reins. Schoodic props, hops, shakes and strikes in protest. Frost chuckles. Through the trees, we meet up with Fisher, mounted on an ATV at the bottom of the all-weather gallop.
Fisher sends Frost out ahead. Watters and I turn and wait.
“Stay 5 lengths behind,” Fisher coaches as we move off, “And he’ll settle.”
Bridge the reins. I’m holding, he’s rooting. Trying too hard, bracing too hard. You don’t get to ride a Hunt Cup horse at Jack Fisher’s every day. Preseli Rock swaps from left to right in the turn, puts his head down and settles. Number 16 seems possible, for moment. Storm Team roots, hard. Watters steadies, I steady, Preseli Rock obliges. Almost home. What an engine, what a horse.
Index finger and thumb on the buckle, Preseli Rock cools out as quietly as he warmed up. Watters and I take the scenic route back to the barn. The Irishman “practically grew up” on Navan Racecourse in County Meath. Four years ago, he moved to the States to ride races. Four weeks ago, his phone rang.
“You can’t turn down Jack Fisher,” he said, grinning.
Fisher’s former stable jockey, Michael Mitchell, returned to his native Oxfordshire, England, after spending a decade travelling the world, riding races from the U.S. to New Zealand. Fisher had a role to fill, and Watters was happy to answer the call.
“Horses like Jack’s can make your career,” he said.
Preseli Rock sighs, lips clapping as he pushes air through, and I jump down. I pull his tack and take him for a roll in the round pen. Webb watches attentively as a dark bay jogs on the horse exerciser. Now dry, grooms turn out the 9 o’clock set in pairs for an afternoon of grazing in the paddock.
Fisher and I catch up in the shade of the shed row. Rosco the donkey supervises from the opposite corner of the courtyard.
Conversation turns to the first foundation block in Fisher's career. Saluter carried Fisher to the top as a rider and trainer. Now, 21 years after he ran his last race, he tags along everywhere that Fisher goes.
Bolted to the back of his navy BMW, Fisher’s Maryland plates read “SALUTER.”
“He was a rogue,” Fisher recalls. He shifts his eyes downward, kicks the rubber matted floor and spits. “He could be a horrible bastard.”
When Fisher first met him, he was a washed-up hurdler running back on the flat. In two starts over hurdles, he’d scored a pair of DNFs under (now top show jumper) Aaron Vale. But then Fisher climbed aboard, signed on as trainer and tried him over timber.
Saluter broke his maiden over timber in his first start and Fisher had a feeling. He entered the gelding in a $20,000 allowance at the 1993 Genesee Valley Hunt Races against stiff competition.
“There were two previous horse-of-the-years running, and I thought I can be third and still make $2,000,” Fisher said.
Our Legend cranes his neck through the yoke in his stall screen and nudges Fisher on the shoulder. Fisher turns, scratches him on the forehead, pivots again and lifts his eyes.
“We beat both of them. The rest is history,” he says, grasping the bill of his baseball cap.
Fisher turns his attention to current affairs. We run through his stable roster and talk about the upcoming season. Spring meets are still recovering from pandemic-related struggles. Spectators are limited and some sponsors have had to tighten their belts, so prize money is still down from 2019 levels. But that won’t deter Fisher.
“We rely solely on fans and corporate sponsors,” he says. “We always want to widen that base.”
Fisher’s phone rings. His new tractor is six minutes away. He squats and takes a moment to coax Webb’s shy Pitbull rescue from beneath a boxwood.
He stands up and thinks for a moment. We walk toward the driveway where a man lowers the ramp on a flatbed. A second climbs up in the cab of the tractor and backs it off the trailer.
“I have very good owners and they send me very good horses,” Fisher says. “That’s how you become leading trainer.”
Jack Fisher and Sonny Via teamed up to bring the Cheltenham Festival winner across the pond. Fisher plucked the 2018 Arkle Challenge Trophy winner out of Irish trainer Willie Mullins’ powerhouse stable for Via in early 2020 (Winning the Arkle at left, Sean Clancy Photo) He hasn’t run on American soil yet, but that didn’t stop handicappers from rating him at 160, making him the highest rated horse in the country. Look for him in the Grade 3 Temple Gwathmey Hurdle Handicap at the Middleburg Spring Races May 1.
Ears? One and a half. “He had a sarcoid removed, and the vet ended up taking half of his ear with it,” Webb says, “But he doesn’t seem bothered by it.”
Fisher: “Sonny likes to play at the top level and this horse will give him a good shot.”
Winner of his last seven starts, including the Kiser Novice Stakes and Walsh Novice Stakes at Saratoga. Second-highest rated steeplechaser in the country at 153. Watch as he goes head-to-head with stablemate Footpad for owner Bruton Street-US in the Temple Gwathmey at Middleburg May 1.
Fisher: “The perfect horse, a stakes horse on the flat but not a winner. He’s perfect at our game. That’s the kind of horse I’m looking for.”
On the disabled list. The 2020 Eclipse Award winner will watch from the dugout this season.
Webb: “But he’ll be back.”
Fisher won’t admit to having a favorite, but he lights up when he talks about “Gibby.” The 9-year-old gelding knocked on the door in two Saratoga Grade 1 stakes, but didn’t quite seal the deal, placing third and fourth. The Steeplethon at Middleburg could be the plan this year.
Fisher: “I just like his attitude.”
Gill Johnston’s 10-year-old has been around the block. This year, he’s headed for the (Maryland) Grand National April 17.
Fisher: “A good jumper.”
Schoodic (pictured left, Tod Marks Photo)
The stalwart. “He’s been here since he was 3,” Webb says. Now 11, the 2019 International Gold Cup winner will make his 2021 debut in Saturday’s My Lady’s Manor Timber Stakes.
Stable superlative: “Happiest.”
The wild card. Bruton Street’s 13-year-old timber veteran will return for his first start in five years. Penciled in for Saturday’s My Lady’s Manor.
Bruton Street’s veteran timber horse finished second in the 2019 Maryland Hunt Cup. He’ll have another crack at it April 24, but not before a stop at My Lady’s Manor.
Stable superlative: “Best eater.”
Preseli Rock (Ire)
Imported by Bruton Street in 2017, he had back-to-back wins in a maiden timber at Genesee Valley and the Steeplethon at International Gold Cup the same year. Benched for three years following back surgery but now back in action, he’ll head to My Lady’s Manor Saturday. Then watch him hop around the Hunt Cup April 24.
Shaken up after a fall at Middleburg in October, he’s back in good form now. The 7-year-old son of Candy Ride won the open timber at the Green Spring Valley point to point March 27.
Stable superlative: “Toughest ride.”
Won a handicap hurdle at Virginia Fall Races in October. It seems Gill Johnston’s 8-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway found his niche after a few years in the claiming ranks on the flat. See him step up to the novice ranks at the Queens Cup in Mineral Springs, N.C., April 24. (Pictured left, with Reggie Williams after win at Virginia Fall Races. Tod Marks Photo)
Stable superlative: “Best name.”
Riverdee Stable’s up and comer. He broke his maiden over hurdles at Middleburg Fall Races last October. This season, he’ll return to Glenwood Park May 1.
After a few years in the hurdle ranks, Fisher wants to try timber. Slated for the maiden timber at My Lady’s Manor.
Will run in the maiden timber at My Lady’s Manor.
The 2020 Saratoga allowance winner is major flat owner Robert LaPenta’s lone ‘chaser. He’ll head to the Queen’s Cup April 24.
Meet the team
When you’re not around horses, you are…?
Jack Fisher: On the slopes. Jackson Hole, preferably.
Sandra Webb: Baking.
Graham Watters: Cycling.
Troy Lively: On his boat crab fishing with his daughter. Or alternatively, eating a steak and egg sandwich, courtesy of Sean Clancy (Sorry Troy, I’ll know the drill next time).
Hadden Frost: Still in the saddle, just a heavier one. Campaigning his string of show jumpers.
Emme Fullilov: Hiking.
Aaron Davis: Reading
Rachael Lively: Being a mom.