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Straw that stirs the drink

Posted by on 5/14/2010 12:55:09 PM
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The great Reggie Jackson gets credit for the saying ‘the straw that stirs the drink’ but in the equine world, the guys that make it go are the trainers.

A thoroughbred trainer has to be part soccer mom and part Marine drill sergeant. He has to know when to coddle and when to throw the gauntlet down.

And just like in horse races every single day, the best horse doesn’t always win. When training a runner specifically for the grueling Triple Crown trail it is not enough to ‘breed the best to the best and hope for the best’, but you also need heart, luck, and the correct conditioning strategy.

Face it; a racehorse can weigh 1,000 pounds, running upwards of 40 miles per hour on legs that are supported by ankles as big as humans. To succeed, they need good care and excellent training.

A trainer is responsible for the care, management, and daily needs of a thoroughbred. On the runner’s way to getting fit, the trainer must condition the horse properly and then enter him in the correct types of races.

Racehorses are athletes, and athletes have to practice, even if Allen Iverson didn’t like to put in the practice time.

The nuts and bolts of training are tested and true but each horse must also be looked at as an individual. A runner will tell you by his demeanor and his manner how he is doing and if he can take the next hurdle.

A normal day for a trainer would be to start the first of three feedings early in the morning, around 4:00 a.m., before the workouts. Mid morning, after cleaning and grooming, another meal will be given to the horse. The main meal will come in late afternoon, which traditionally consists of oats, sweet feed, grains, corn and maybe sweetened with molasses.

The work for the day could be a number of different chores. Early in the process, just walking or jogging will loosen up some of the muscles. Strong gallops are used to build stamina and to put a ‘foundation’ under a horse so he has something in reserve when the going gets tough.

A solid series of works or breezes are needed to get the horse racing fit. It is more important to have the works spaced correctly rather than have the times be off the charts. It is all a matter of style. Some horsemen, guys like the late Bobby Frankel, Neil Drysdale, and Zenyatta’s trainer John Shirreffs, seldom ask their horses for sizzling speed in the mornings.

Trainers like Mel Stute, who mentored 1986 Preakness winner Snow Chief, and Bob Baffert, who has done very well in the Derby over the years, always send their charges through the morning workouts briskly and often have them post best of the morning bullet works.

Racing today is all about money and early money. The cash put up for juvenile racing is staggering and it pretty much forces a lot of hands to coax ability out of their stock as early as possible. Horatio Luro, who won two Kentucky Derbies with Decidedly and Northern Dancer, believed in patient and careful handling and as he put it ‘not squeezing the lemon dry’.

A good trainer can’t make a slow horse run. The horse has to have talent, but a good trainer can bring out the best in a horse by finding out what the runner does best. A trainer has to figure out if his runner is a speed horse or a horse that will go a distance of ground. All horses are different. A trainer has to be super observant and just like a lot of things in life it’s the small things that count. Every sign of energy a horse shows, or lack there of, must be evaluated and worked on.

It is often a case of trying different things to get a horse to run better.

Lastly, some horses just have that magical thing called IT. Talking about Seattle Slew before he beat Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup, former rider Angel Cordero: “He was bouncing in front of Affirmed, doing some dancing right in front of him. I said, look, he’s trying to psyche Affirmed. It was like what Muhammad Ali would do to Joe Frazier. The great horses know how to be the boss, and he had the power.”

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