Young trainer gets help acquiring horse sense Teacher, pupil coax Testafly to defy odds

October 15, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Some days the teacher and the student sit for hours on stools outside the barn and discuss horses. Other days they barely say a word.

But however Dale Mills and Hayes S. Brown communicate, the message gets through loud and clear. Spanning the generations, their relationship at Barn 16 at Laurel Park produces horses who overachieve and defy the odds -- none more dramatically than Testafly.

Testafly, a 4-year-old colt who lost his first 11 races, will likely be favored in the $200,000 Maryland Million Classic, the featured race Saturday of the 13th Maryland Million at Laurel Park.

Mills, 34, is Testafly's trainer. Brown, 74, a trainer in Maryland during the 1950s and '60s, is Mills' mentor. They forged a relationship three years ago that has deepened as their success multiplied.

"They're very close," said Michelle Whitman, the 30-year-old groom of Testafly and four other horses in the barn. "Actually, when I started working here last year I thought they were father and son."

Mills, a native of Trinidad, cut his teeth riding and training show horses. He galloped horses for Dale Capuano, one of Maryland's top trainers, and began training on his own in 1993.

Brown, dapper in cowboy hat, sunglasses, blue vest and red tie, trained horses in Maryland for two decades and then worked two more decades as stall manager at Laurel Park. Ten years ago, he retired.

But then his wife, Hattie, suffered a stroke. He took care of her until she died three years ago.

And then, in Brown's words: "I was just sitting at home, brooding. My son told me what we needed to do to get me out of the house was to go buy a horse."

His son, J. D. Brown, manages five boxers, including World Boxing Association champion William Joppy. He also is an adviser to the former champion Sugar Ray Leonard and manages five more boxers in partnership with Leonard.

After Hattie Brown died, they ventured to Laurel Park, toured the rTC backstretch, found a horse for sale and then set out to find a trainer. They asked around and settled on Mills, who was training just a couple of horses.

"That was the start of it all," J. D. Brown said.

Mills trains a dozen horses now, nearly all for J. D. Brown and partners. The most notable is Testafly, claimed for $14,500 as a 3-year-old last year.

Under Mills' care with Hayes Brown's tutelage, Testafly matured, grew stronger, overachieved and provided Mills his first stakes win, the $100,000 Jennings Handicap in April at Pimlico. In the winner's circle, Mills tipped his hat to Brown, calling him his mentor.

Brown returns the gesture.

"He understands horses," Brown said of Mills. "He likes horses. He establishes a rapport with them. And they like him. They respond to him."

Mills exercises his own horses in the morning. That's an advantage most trainers don't have, said J. D. Brown.

"He can tell how they're feeling, how they're going," J. D. Brown said. "He knows how to coax the maximum effort out of them.

"But his greatest attribute is that he wants to be successful. He works harder than the next guy. His paid vacation is being at work every day."

The only mark upon his record occurred this summer with Testafly in the Philip H. Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park. After battling with Skip Away early, Testafly faded to third.

New Jersey racing officials announced later that Testafly had tested positive for the drug clenbuterol, which helps clear a horse's lungs of mucus and allows horses with respiratory ailments to breathe more easily. The drug is legal for horses while training but not when they're racing.

Mills appealed the decision. A hearing has not been held. He denies administering the drug to Testafly but knows that, if the drug test was accurate, he probably can't win.

"I'll take my medicine," Mills said. "I just don't want this to hurt the horse. He's done everything on his own. He doesn't need help. He's an iron horse, a lot like Skip Away."

When Skip Away retires next month, Mills said, he sees no reason why Testafly can't continue improving and perhaps even fill Skip Away's shoes next year in the top races for older horses, starting at Gulfstream Park, running through the Pimlico Special and beyond.

But first, Mills must saddle Testafly for the Maryland Million Classic. J. D. Brown said he hopes the race will be Mills' "coming out party. Maybe then he'll start getting the respect he deserves.

"I think he's one of the best-kept secrets in racing," Brown said. "If he gets the opportunity, I don't see why he can't become one of the top trainers in the country."

Maryland Million Day

What: 11 races for horses sired by Maryland stallions

Where: Laurel Park

When: Saturday, first race 12: 35 p.m.

Purses: $1,025,000

Feature race: $200,000 Maryland Million Classic, 1 3/16 miles

Activities: Jack Russell terrier races, dressage performance, trick riding, carriage driving, jousting demonstration, face painting, clowns, magicians, "Maryland Millie" beanie horse giveaway

TV: 4 to 6 p.m., Fox 45 will show four races live, others on tape

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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