Her Dad

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Katherine “Kat” Zwiesler was 12 years old, aboard a horse named Gambling Man at Sharp Farm in Delaware and really wanted to be somewhere – anywhere – else. 

“He used to stumble all the time and the other gallop boy would fall off him training. I was on him in the barn, getting ready to go train and I was crying and trying to tell my dad and I didn’t think he was listening.”

Zwiesler’s dad, Mike, walked over to the horse, reached up, grabbed his daughter by the wrist and yanked her to the ground.

“There, you fell off. You’re fine, right? Now get back on and do the best you can,” he said. “That’s all you can do. You just get on and do the best you can.”

She’s doing that again now, as an adult. 

Mike Zwiesler, 58, is dying of cancer. His daughter, assistant to trainer Arnaud Delacour, is in Saratoga with top-class sprinter A. P. Indian. Undefeated in three starts this year, the 6-year-old gelding runs in the Grade 1 Alfred Vanderbilt Handicap and puts a smile on Zwiesler’s face pretty much every day.

“This horse has a heart of gold,” she said. “You couldn’t ask for a more straightforward, honest horse than A. P. I love him and my dad will be watching. He thinks this horse is a beast.”

Zwiesler would know. He spent 20 years with trainer Neil Howard, and later trained horses for Will Farish, Bayard Sharp and the Farish/Sharp family at racetracks and farms in Delaware, Louisiana, Florida, Ohio and wherever horses took him. 

As a trainer, Zwiesler won 175 races from 1999 to 2011, and trained stakes horses Rock Candy, Shag and Mumbo Jumbo among others. He quit training when the Farishes no longer needed a second division, but his daughter followed him into the game.

She worked for trainer Steve Margolis, went to California with Tom Proctor, spent time on Glen Hill Farm in Florida, galloped the likes of Grade 1 winner Flat Out and has been with the Delacour stable for two years. In addition to Flat Out, she’s ridden Marketing Mix and Broken Dreams for Proctor and gone to the Preakness with Divining Rod for Delacour.

“Everything,” she replied immediately when asked what she learned from her father. “Horsemanship skills more than anything. Dad always said, ‘They talk, they talk to you, they tell you exactly what they want. You just have to listen.’ From checking legs to rolling polos when I was 5 years old in the tack room at Fair Grounds (she got a penny a polo) to what I’m doing now, I think about what he taught me.”

Friday, she was overseeing the final preparations for A. P. Indian, a winner of eight races and $527,434, and thinking about her father. She just spent a week with him in Florida – losing hands of gin rummy, playing Monopoly and Scrabble (ruthlessly) and convincing him that all the phone calls he’s getting from friends are a good thing.

He loved the visit, but has probably forgotten it. Cancer is stealing his memory. Ultimately, it’ll take his life. 

In October, he went to the doctor to get some new blood-pressure medication. Tests revealed lung cancer and he underwent surgery to remove 10 percent of a lung and seven lymph nodes. He did chemotherapy, radiation, the whole bit, all winter and got a clean scan in April. 

He went on the fishing trip of a lifetime to Canada, came back home to Florida and underwent another scan. Cancer, pretty much everywhere. A tumor is pushing on his spinal cord. He’s losing the use of his legs. His daughter presses on. 

“I think I’ve cried as much as I can anymore and it’s kind of done with,” she said. “It’s tough now to think if I ever do train on my own he’s never going to be there to watch me saddle my first horse, or when my husband (jockey Geovany Garcia) and I have kids he’s never going to be there to see that kind of stuff. It’s been really hard on my mom, too, and I think about what she’s going through. He just turned 58 in February. He’s young. He was doing really well this winter and they gave him time, then all of this happens.”

Proctor called his friend Friday to talk about horses and life.

“It’s hard,” Proctor said. “I told him ‘I’ll keep an eye on Kat for you’ and he said ‘I know you will.’ He’s a really good guy, one of the really good guys I’ve known in my life.”

Kat knows, and also knows her father’s pride. The old horse trainer watches the Delacour horses run on television and on an iPad his daughter connected to his television last week. 

When she accompanies A. P. Indian to the paddock for the Vanderbilt today, she’ll hear her father. 

“He’s all about watching the races, watching our horses run,” she said. “We have nice horses and we had very, very, very nice horses when he was with Sharp and then with Farish. Nice horses, but he never had a Grade 1 horse. He always tells me ‘You be thankful. Don’t you ever forget where you came from.’ “

Not a chance.


SEPTEMBER 5 UPDATE: A. P. Indian and Kat won the Vanderbilt the day this column ran in The Saratoga Special. More than one person said it was for Mike. A month later, the horse came back and won the Grade 1 Forego on Travers Day, Aug. 27. Kat was in Florida with her father. Mike Zwiesler died Sept. 3 at his home near Tampa, Fla. He was 58. For more, see Daily Racing Form story.