Training Her Way

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I was desperate.

The 1998 New York Turf Writers Cup loomed and I didn’t have a ride. Not riding a jump race at Saratoga when you call yourself a jump jockey hurts. You spend all morning avoiding the question, “Who are you riding and who do you like?” They look at you like, “Man, that’s pathetic. Two races a week and you’re missing one. Get a job, dude.”


So I went down the list of nominations, starting with the highweights. Lonesome Glory, that’s funny. Romantic for Sheppard, no chance. Clearance Code, taken. Sundin, reserved. I got to Hokan before I found a no-vacancy sign, at the bottom of the page. Allowance winner, never tried open stakes, in with 140 pounds. I probably weighed 150, he was the only chance at riding the race. I didn’t care about winning it, I just wanted to ride the biggest stakes of the summer. To be involved.

I finished my job at Leo O’Brien’s, tucked in my shirt, checked the rearview mirror to see if I looked hung over and went to hustle Hokan. There weren’t too many of us left to choose from, I knew that, and he didn’t have much shot on paper, I knew that too.

Next stop, Janet Elliot’s shedrow, all the way down in the Annex, last stalls on the right. Burgundy webbings and polos. Standing martingales hanging from the tack hook. Hard-working help and hardest-working trainer in the sport. I was as nervous as I was the first time I tried this, back in 1988, to ask to ride Bureau Chief, my first ride at Saratoga. This time, I asked. She ignored.

I picked up a metal rake and started forming herringbones in her shedrow. It started out as a joke but then I couldn’t quit halfway through (she was expecting that). I kept raking until it looked like the apron of Taylor Made’s consignment. She liked that, and after about three mornings of raking, put me on the horse. I promised her I would do 142. It was a long week.
Hokan came through, beat champion Lonesome Glory and other stalwarts to win Elliot’s first Turf Writers. My first and only. He paid $29.

She chased me to the scales to see if I had legitimately done 142 (not telling), told me I hit him too much (which I did) and we put the victory in our annals of big days. She had way more than I did.

Elliot will have her biggest day today when she’s inducted into the Hall of Fame. I hope Hokan makes the plaque. He was one of her best training jobs in a career that has had many. Flat people won’t recognize the victories, but, consider the list long and complete. Colonial Cup, Breeders’ Cup, Turf Writers, Grand National, Temple Gwathmey, Iroquois, A.P. Smithwick, Royal Chase – she won them all. Former assistant to Sheppard, she stopped his reign with her first title back in 1991. Her horses have earned $7.5 million, third on the all-time list. Relentless in finding a way to make every horse a success, she has plied her trade and hammered her nails. She’s hands-on, head down and hard at it. That’s the only way she knows.

Janet never gives up on a horse.

Her work with Victorian Hill, Flat Top, Campanile, Green Highlander, Final Final, Hokan, Declare Your Wish ranks as the best I’ve ever seen. Vic had colic surgery and nearly died, she fed him handfuls of grain and watched him like Brinks Security. Flat Top came to her a nervous wreck and began his career as a one-dimensional frontrunner, he eventually won races from the back and ended up Elliot’s lead pony. Campanile moved like a praying mantis and hung like a gate, he won back-to-back stakes at Saratoga in 1999 and took Elliot to Japan. Green Highlander couldn’t jump, I mean, couldn’t jump, she worked with him like a special-education teacher, until he was efficient enough to win stakes. Final Final came around only after bows and breaks. Hokan was a maneater who wouldn’t train, she made him a puppy. Declare Your Wish never took a sound step.

Some are born to train horses.