Horse Trainers

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At some point it’s got to be about the horses. Otherwise, you’re just trying to make money for rich guys.

I don’t train horses for a living, though I certainly thought about it as a career path at some point – high school and college jobs were always in barns. I liked the horses, the satisfaction of a good performance, the mornings, the healthy enthusiasm when something went right. There was plenty I didn’t like, of course, but that’s for another story.

This is about why people train horses. I hope it’s not for the money, the glory, the winning, even the competition. I hope, at the root, it’s for the animals. They give, sometimes all they have, because we ask. They’re naturally competitive, for sure, and I believe they want to win. But winning doesn’t change their lives all that much, as far as they know anyway. They still live in a barn, eat hay, exercise.

Face it, winning rewards the humans more than the horses, and that’s why I love interviewing humans who try to put into words why they train horses, how they do it and how they’ll never quite have it figured out no matter how much success comes their way.

Carl Nafzger wrote a book about training racehorses called “Traits of a Winner.” I should probably read it, but every time I talk to Nafzger I get a primer. The ultimate goal of a horse trainer, he says, is “for the horse to relax and respond to his rider’s command.”

Sounds simple, at least until he starts explaining how to do it. Or try to do it.

“I don’t train a horse, a horse trains me. They’ve got their own minds. What you don’t want to do is give them a bad picture of anything. Every horse I trained I tried to understand what he enjoyed doing. If he’s got a bad quirk like trying to run off, I try to find out what makes him want to run off. Is it a heart problem? Soreness? Is he scared? You learn that by observation and then mentally you try to understand him.”

Of course, the horse can’t talk – so you have to listen any way you can.

“We had a filly one time, she’d tear up the webbings, run at people, just be nasty every time somebody walked by,” Nafzger said. “One day, I put a screen up and she was happy in her territory. She settled right down. She was protecting her territory. She was happy in there.”

Jonathan Sheppard won his first race in 1966. I was a 1-year-old. The Hall of Fame trainer should know what he’s talking about when it comes to Thoroughbred horses, but he doesn’t have it figured out. He wonders, he questions, he thinks about it. A few weeks ago, he reflected on the start of the steeplechase season and a quiet winter in Florida. His horses were in many places, going in many directions. He started talking about his spring flat string and I could almost see him shrug through the phone.

“I’m getting to know them,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll take a good group to Keeneland. I don’t a have very strong flat stable. It’s a fairly good number, but . . .”

Through Wednesday, his Keeneland starters have won four of five starts. 

Graham Motion saddled Animal Kingdom to win the Kentucky Derby in 2011 and the Dubai World Cup in 2013. The trainer is engineering a try at Royal Ascot in June. Born in England, Motion grew up with Ascot and tales of English racing greatness. As an American, he’s long thought about taking a horse back to challenge those tales, and could have done it long before now.

“Look, I grew up watching racing in England so Ascot is the cream of the crop and it’s become more so lately, especially with the international flair. Certainly it’s something I grew up being very aware of. I’ve always said I’d like to take a horse back to Europe to compete, but that’s not why we’re doing it. I don’t want people to think I’m going after one of my goals. It’s got nothing to do with that. This just happens to have come along and he’s a horse that has the equipment to handle it. It’s a little bit like running in the (Kentucky) Derby. I had a couple of not great experiences in the Derby and I kind of made up my mind that if I was going to do it again it would be with the right horse. I was very fortunate the right horse came around. With England, I’ve always wanted to do it but I’ve never wanted to do it with a horse that might not handle it. It’s asking a lot of a horse. It’s a unique set of circumstances.”

So is training racehorses.