Basic training puts up a fight

Smaller operations competitive with mega-trainers

Basic training puts up fight

May 19, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG | JOHN EISENBERG,SUN REPORTER

Seldom have Kentucky Derby winners departed Louisville, Ky., faster than trainer Michael Matz and Barbaro. They were back in Maryland within two days.

"I had a lot of other horses to take care of back here," said Matz, who conditions more than 50 thoroughbreds at the Fair Hill Training Center in Cecil County.

Bud Delp, the previous trainer before Matz to win the Derby with a Maryland-based horse, also had almost 50 in his stable when Spectacular Bid won in 1979.

But when Delp won, a 50-horse stable was considered gargantuan. Today, 50 is relatively small. Numerous trainers have that many or more in their care, and some oversee up to 200, simultaneously running "divisions" of 40 at five tracks.

"I can hardly believe how much the game has changed that way," said Delp, who still has 22 horses.

But while the definition of large and small stables has changed, the competition between them remains one of racing's eternal struggles. Centuries ago in England, it was played out as commoners taking on the king's horses. Today, it's the sporting version of a local dime store taking on Wal-Mart.

The (relatively) little guys have had the upper hand in recent Triple Crown races: Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones and Funny Cide came from stables no larger than Matz's. But mega-stable trainers Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito have combined to win 25 Triple Crown races, and unlike Matz and the other "smaller" trainers who have won recently, they're always in the Triple Crown picture.

"When you nominate more horses, buy more horses, run more horses and generally come with the kinds of numbers we do, you're always going to be dangerous," Lukas said of himself, Baffert and Zito.

Each of those three touches hundreds of horses a year, and a new generation of mega-stable trainers, led by Todd Pletcher, a Lukas protege, now is following their lead. Pletcher's Bluegrass Cat ran second to Barbaro in the Derby.

That one-two finish in Louisville effectively depicted the different approaches to training and the profound disparity between large and small stables. According to National Thoroughbred Racing Association statistics, Pletcher-trained horses have made 428 starts in 2006 while Matz-trained horses have made 73.

But one size isn't inherently better than the other at producing winners of Triple Crown races, industry sources say.

"Having done it both ways, I can tell you, horses get cared for just as well in a large outfit as in a small outfit, provided you hire enough help to do things right," Delp said. "Whatever the size of the stable, a good trainer with a good horse is still going to win."

For the first half of the 20th century, American racing was dominated by "private" stables backed by wealthy society families such as the Phippses, Whitneys and Vanderbilts. Each had his own trainer who worked for no one else.

It was hard to imagine a "public" trainer simultaneously working for dozens of clients and caring for 200 horses.

"But those days [of the private trainer] are long gone," Lukas said. "That's just a romantic memory now."

Racing became more open and democratic as the wealth and influence of the society families waned in the 1950s. Around that time, the ability to transport horses on airplanes, as opposed to trains, revolutionized the sport. Forward-thinking trainers realized they could double or triple their business by simultaneously running horses at different tracks and moving their stock back and forth.

That really signaled the end of the Seabiscuit-era horse whisperer who raked his own stalls and bathed his own horses while exhibiting a mysterious knack for communing with the few animals in his care.

"The days of the young trainer coming of age in the stall next to a dad dispensing wisdom through a plug of chewing tobacco, they ended," Lukas said. "It became a money game."

According to Delp, a Chicago-based trainer named Arnold Winick was the first to develop a mega-stable; he led racing meetings in Chicago and Florida in the 1960s and also raced in New York and New Jersey.

"Winick went to work with a suit on," Delp said.

After Winick, there was Jack Van Berg, a curmudgeonly Midwesterner who became a top trainer in the 1970s and conditioned Alysheba, the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner.

"Jack ran horses at every track where there was racing in the late 1970s," Delp said. "He put assistants in charge at every track, flew in for two days, then got on a plane and flew to the next place for two days. He'd just go 'round and 'round and 'round like that. He spent more time in airplanes than anywhere else."

In such an operation, the hands-on horse chores are left almost entirely to assistant trainers and grooms. The trainer receives credit for winning but is often not present. His role is to purchase horses for clients, plot racing campaigns for each horse and devise training schedules designed to have horses peaking on race day.

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