Graham never takes neigh for an answer

Horse racing: The trainer's handling of Richetta testifies to her remarkable ability to communicate with horses.

Horse Racing

December 30, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The conversation between human and horse lasted maybe 30 seconds. Richetta, a 2-year-old filly, had been at Robin Graham's barn at Laurel Park about 1 1/2 weeks when Graham decided it was time for a talk.

A fidgety, headstrong filly, Richetta had been kicking at handlers, marching over hot walkers and dancing sideways during baths. As she acted up during her bath one morning in late May, Graham, her trainer and exercise rider, grabbed the shank hooked to the filly's halter.

Graham glared into Richetta's wide eyes. She doesn't remember exactly what she said, but she scolded the horse, as a mother might do with a child who's gotten too big for his britches.

"That was the day she decided she needed to respect me," Graham said. "We had a discussion about it being time to figure out who was going to be boss. She decided I could be it."

Although the discussion between human and horse continues to this day, that was a turning point in Richetta's transformation from a talented racehorse with potential to one on the verge of completing a championship season in Maryland racing.

Richetta will compete tomorrow at Laurel Park in the $100,000 Maryland Juvenile Filly Championship Stakes against 2-year-old Maryland-bred fillies. She will attempt to win her fifth race in six starts.

After capturing three stakes, including the Maryland Million Lassie against fillies sired by Maryland stallions and the Selima against fillies from any state, Richetta has clinched the crown of champion Maryland-bred 2-year-old filly of 2003.

A triumph on the final day of the year would close one chapter of her racing career and open the next in which she might engage the fastest 3-year-old fillies in some of the country's most prestigious races. Her race tomorrow shares top billing with the $100,000 Maryland Juvenile Championship Stakes for 2-year-old Maryland-bred colts and geldings.

Milton P. Higgins III, part-owner of Richetta, attributes the filly's success in large measure to Graham's patient, perceptive handling. He said Graham has a "God-given affinity for horses" that allows her to communicate with them as effectively as anyone he has ever seen.

"Humans are always trying to find themselves," said Higgins, who owns Richetta with Tom Bowman, the veterinarian who is also president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

"Robin found herself at a very young age in horses. She knew early on who she was, and she could see herself reflected in horses. That's why they have such an unbelievable, uncanny relationship with each other."

Graham, 47, has been training on her own since 1994 after spending a lifetime focusing her communication skills on animals and, eventually, horses. She grew up in Baltimore County in a family not associated with horses. Yet she was drawn to them and read many horse books as a girl.

"My best friends have always been animals," Graham said. "I was terrified of people."

One of the most difficult things she has ever done, she said, is overcome that terror when she was 13 and knock on the door of neighbors in Sparks. They owned two horses, and Graham asked whether she could feed and care for them after school - not for pay, just because she wanted to.

The neighbors said yes, and they eventually let Graham, who had never taken a lesson, ride the horses. She's been riding horses ever since.

She jogged hunters and later galloped racehorses at Sagamore Farm. She worked as an exercise rider for Maryland trainers, including Barclay Tagg, for 12 years. Tagg eventually relocated to New York and won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness last year with Funny Cide.

After serving as a trainer's assistant as well as exercise rider, Graham decided to strike out on her own. She started nine years ago with three horses.

Her crowning achievement - up to now - came with Gin Talking. After winning all four races at 2 for another trainer, the Maryland-bred filly lost her first two at 3 and became an unraveling bundle of nerves.

Her owners, Skeedattle Associates, turned her over to Graham in the fall of 2000. Graham worked with her, calmed her and saddled her to three straight stakes victories, including one against males in the Broad Brush Stakes at Laurel Park. Gin Talking won honors as Maryland-bred Horse of the Year.

"There's no such thing as a routine training program with Robin," said Willie White, one of the partners in Skeedattle, which now has all its horses with Graham. "She adapts her program to the horse's needs; she notices everything. I feel as if she takes a horse as far as it can possibly go. She gets the best out of them."

In the process, Graham becomes consumed.

"I can worry about everything - and do, frequently," she said. "I end up worrying about what I can worry about."

Graham seems particularly adept at doing what the best trainers do: train the horses' brains as well as their bodies. It's a constant battle - and ongoing discussion - between human and horse. And it's a delicate balance.

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