KTFMC April Meeting Hosts Discussion with Leading Trainers

Attendees of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers’ Club (KTFMC)’s monthly meeting, held Tuesday evening at Limestone Hall, were treated to “A Discussion with North America’s Leading Trainers,” featuring a panel that included Brad Cox, Bill Mott, Todd Pletcher and Brendan Walsh.

FanDuel/TVG host and reporter Scott Hazelton moderated the discussion, as the trainers, who all have GI Kentucky Derby and/or GI Kentucky Oaks contenders in their stables, shared stories about their beginnings and how it all led to where they are today.

“I was born in South Dakota and when I was a little kid, I either wanted to be a cowboy or I thought I’d probably work on a ranch. When I was 14, I wound up getting a job with the Asmussens at their place in South Dakota and it just went from there,” said Mott. “I worked with horses throughout the summers and bought my first horse when I was 15 years old and got lucky, winning the South Dakota Futurity with him. It was $3,800 to the winner and I thought I was the richest guy in South Dakota.”

After spending six years working for trainers Bob Irwin and later Jack Van Berg, Mott opened his public stable in 1978.

“I’ve had some good clients that have raced in some great places and I’ve had a lot of help along the way,” said Mott. “It’s wonderful to be able to work with really good horses and as you’re able to graduate into something that allows you to do that, you meet a lot of great people along the way. It’s all the way from the grooms and hotwalkers to some of the most interesting people you meet as owners.”

When asked about how all of his experiences have culminated to where he is now, Mott glanced at the trainers sitting beside him and replied, “I learned a lot from everybody I worked for but I still keep watching. I try to learn from these guys that are sitting beside me. I watch what they do and I try to make myself better. With these guys nipping at my heels every day, I’ve got to work harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, but they make me better. The better the competition is, the better you are.”

Pletcher recalled a childhood spent going to the track with his father, longtime trainer Jake Pletcher, and shared the story of his first racehorse, a $700 yearling colt by Bold Cape, who was a spur-of-the-moment acquisition after a fellow trainer offered the horse to his father and an 8-year-old Pletcher offered to take him instead.

“[My dad] said ‘Go look at the horse. If the horse is correct, you can have him.’ I went back and I looked at him, I mean this horse could barely see over the webbing, but he was correct, so I called him and said, ‘He’s correct, but he’s pretty small.’ And he said, ‘Alright, go ahead and take him,’” said Pletcher.

After training him with his father for two years, the colt named Rambunctiously won on debut at Oaklawn as a 3-year-old in 1981.

“I ran him back two weeks later and he won, but he got claimed, which I thought was the worst thing that could happen. But as it turned out, financially, it was a good thing,” said Pletcher.

As he grew up, he spent time hot walking and grooming for California trainer Henry Moreno, and later spent a summer working with Charlie Whittingham and eventually found his place with D. Wayne Lukas.

“One thing they had in common was that they were great caretakers. They always paid extra attention to the details of how their horses were taken care of,” said Pletcher.

After working six years as an assistant to Lukas, Pletcher decided to go out on his own in the fall of 1995.

“The guy that encouraged me to do it was Mike Ryan. He had a few clients and he said he could send me some horses if I ever decided to. I started off at Hialeah Park with seven horses and was pretty fortunate. We were able to win a few races and expand from there.”

For Walsh, born in County Cork, Ireland, horses were a passion from the very beginning. After jockey school, college, working on various stud farms and spending a few summers working for different trainers, he ended up working at Sheikh Mohammed’s Kildangan Stud. That’s where his story began with Godolphin, as he traveled with them to Dubai before coming to the states.

“At one point, actually, I was supposed to come work for Bill. I don’t know if Bill ever realized that or not, but it never materialized over a visa or something like that, but that’s going back a long time,” said Walsh. “But I loved it over here and I thought it was a place where I’d probably have more opportunity than I would have in Europe.”

When asked if there was one horse in particular that stood out early on in his career, Walsh shared the story of Cary Street (Smarty Jones), who was a 4-year-old when Walsh claimed him for $10,000 out of a race in mid-February of 2013. Though it initially appeared that Cary Street hadn’t been worth the investment, he eventually improved under Walsh’s training and went on to win the GII Las Vegas Marathon S. at Santa Anita Park and the GIII Greenwood Cup S. at Parx in 2014.

“That was our $10,000 horse. I don’t think any horse will ever do what he did for me at the time. He just kind of got us going and that was the best $10,000 I ever spent,” said Walsh.

He also reflected on the climb he’s made in career, from working at Kildangan and now training stateside for Godolphin.

“I think it was really pivotal because you got to be around good horses. That’s always helped me along the way. From when I was working at Kildangan, you were around these super well-bred yearlings, and when we went to Dubai, it was like a ‘who’s who’ of European breeding,” said Walsh. “I always wanted to be around nice horses and it kind of set the bar to try and progress and be better all the time.”

For Cox, who grew up in South Louisville just blocks away from Churchill Downs, horse racing has been a constant for the entirety of his life.

“I liked two or three things: horse racing, Kentucky basketball and baseball. I wasn’t very good at baseball. I thought I was going to be a guard for the University of Kentucky, but based on conformation and talent, that was very short-lived,” said Cox. “I fell in love with horse racing at a very early age. My dad would take me to the track and I’d bring that program home and I’d read everything. It’s what I wanted to do and I just worked my way up, starting at the bottom.”

Making his way up through the ranks, from rubbing horses to becoming a foreman and later working as an assistant trainer to Dallas Stewart, Cox went out on his own in 2004.

“It was a long, grilling road but it was well worth it. I’m very proud of what our team has accomplished,” said Cox. “You have to get up and do it every day, you have to continue to work. It’s demanding, it’s a lot of hours, but it’s very rewarding.”

KTFMC President Gerry Duffy with Boyd Browning | Sara Gordon

Hazelton asked the trainers how the sport has evolved in their eyes and if there were any changes they’d like to see in the industry going forward, which led to a discussion about uniformity and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA).

“I think we’re going down the right track with a lot of things, in terms of uniform medication rules and anti-doping, so I think those are all positive things. To have everybody on pretty much the same playing field would be great,” said Cox.

“I think the biggest changes we’re seeing now are with HISA, the federal intervention. I think the biggest thing I thought it would bring to the table would be uniformity. I was all for uniform medication rules, uniform penalties, so you could go state to state. You don’t want to stub your toe and make an honest mistake just because you’re not aware of the rules,” said Mott. “I think right now with HISA, it’s caused more confusion than uniformity, but hopefully, once things get ironed out maybe we will come to that point where we do have uniform rules from New York to California.”

“One of my biggest issues right now is just the uncertainty [of] where we stand. We’re 18 days out from the Kentucky Derby and we don’t know if the HISA rules are going to be in effect May 1 or if it’s going to be the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission,” said Pletcher. “We saw the implementation of HISA for three or four racing days, then back to each state’s rules. I think everybody wants to play by the rules, but even leading up to when HISA went into effect, what seemed to be proper withdrawal times for very standard medications like bute literally changed from 48 hours, from 72 hours to 96 hours.

“Initially it was supposed to have been put together to make everything unified, but now it seems like there’s some stuff that is not very agreeable at all. They’ve gotten rid of a lot of therapeutic stuff, restricted us on a lot of things that are really just for the benefit of the horses. They’ve kind of restricted us from being horsemen. We’re all trying to be horsemen here and do what’s beneficial for the horses and it seems like they’re wanting to get in our way of that.”

The trainers switched gears, wrapping up the panel with a discussion of their prospects set for the first weekend in May at Churchill Downs, along with new 2-year-olds that have been shipping in to begin their seasons.

“We’re looking forward to the Oaks with Pretty Mischievous [Into Mischief], but we’ve got to try to beat these guys as well,” said Walsh. “We’ve got a nice team of turf fillies this year, some yet to start this year, but it seems like we have a good team put together.”

Cox spoke about his three colts that are Derby bound, including Hit Show (Candy Ride {Arg}), Verifying (Justify) and Angel of Empire (Classic Empire), along with potential starter Jace’s Road (Quality Road), who currently sits in the 21st spot and could make it into the starting gate if any of the top 20 scratch.

“We obviously have a few more works before race day but I’m very happy with all three. We’ve got a group of fillies as well, The Alys Look [Connect] and Botanical [Medaglia d’Oro]. It’s going to be a big week and hopefully a big weekend,” said Cox.

Mott, who trains Derby contender Rocket Can (Into Mischief) admitted he didn’t have any surprises yet to be unveiled in his barn, but looking at the stable overall, he was proud of what this group has accomplished so far this year.

“Most of them have run and the good ones have shown up and we’ve done really well with them. We’re hopefully getting a few of those back to the races, including a couple in Derby week,” said Mott. “We’re like everybody else, we’re already looking at the 2-year-olds. The future is always the excitement in this business.”

Pletcher delved into the remarkable evolution of champion Forte (Violence), who leads his group of Derby contenders.

“It was interesting that he was one of the first 2-year-olds we got in last year, he came in March 25, and he’s just a really intelligent colt. He caught onto everything really well, really quickly and he’s done everything right,” said Pletcher. “It’s great to come here with a group that likes to win. We all know how hard this race is to win.”

The evening was also highlighted by an awards presentation, where Dr. Emma Adam, Shannon Arvin and Boyd Browning were awarded as honorary members, and James Brady became just the fifth person to be honored as a KTFMC Life Member.

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