This week the racing world prepares for the Preakness Stakes. As all the racing journals focus on the stories behind the trainers who are prepping their three-year-olds for the second leg of the Triple Crown, so the sporthorse writers are featuring the human (horse) interest stories in that mysterious racehorse world.
In doing so, an interesting angle has arisen: the old training models of a man lauded as a True Horseman, Shug McGaughey, and the new training methods of a group of dedicated horsepeople who are providing “before-care” for their racehorses.
In The Chronicle of the Horse, there is an article on Mosaic Racing Stable, a small, New York-based operation whose horses aren’t just galloped around a track. They also learn skills that will come in handy in their second career: a laudably lucid forethought in a business where it’s nearly a given that a horse will need a second job by the time he’s just reaching maturity.
If Mosaic Racing Stable is a familiar name, that might be because contributor Fiona Farrell wrote about their unique training style here at Retired Racehorse Blog last March.
In addition to setting aside 15% of a horse’s earnings towards its retirement, the horses from Mosaic are given basic lessons they’ll use later in life — lesson that also make them happier, healthier horses in the meantime. Founding partner Monica Driver explains their practice of sending the horses to Aiken, S.C., for the winter, where they get some turn-out and hop over fences:
“Horses need downtime from any endeavor, I think. They need time off to graze, hang out and be horses, especially when they’re asked to live in a city and do something as physically and mentally demanding and stressful as training and racing,” she adds. “We don’t believe much in 2-year-old racing, and we don’t believe in year-round racing for our horses.”
Horses learn to bend, go over cavelletti, and walk on a loose rein. It’s not such a go-go-go life for them, and they reward Mosaic with performance: their first racehorse, Vicarious, won more than $100,000 at the racetrack.
What seems insanely forward-thinking in a sport like horse racing really might not be lifted straight out of history. The Mosaic method gets nods from trainers like Michael Matz and Rodney Jenkins. Well that makes sense, right? They’re both former show jumpers. But what about veteran Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens? Jimmy Jerkens, Allen’s son, says:
“Years ago at Belmont, my dad used to use a corral where they’d set up jumps [for steeplechase training],” he recalls. “It was a little course inside of a quarter-mile training track. I remember he had a couple of fillies that were kind of sour from doing the same old thing, and they got a kick out of it, and it seemed to turn them around. When you have a horse that’s very sour, you’ve got to try to do things to turn their heads around. Sometimes things like that are a godsend.”
And that brings us to the other story of the week, the connections of Orb, the handsome Kentucky Derby winner who will try to bring home the Woodlawn Vase, the silver trophy awarded to the winner of the Preakness Stakes each year.
There are many articles out there about Shug McGaughey, Odgen Mills Phipps, and Stuart S. Janney III, and I can’t add much to them, only quote them here. I do know what when Orb (not the horse I had money on) came in first in the Derby, I agreed with my husband when he said “Good for Shug!” This is a man you think of as a horseman in the best possible way, not just in the way that there is a horseman’s entrance at the track. A true horseman.
Why, when there are a lot of fellas in the horse-racing game who have been training for a very long time? Well in McGaughey’s case, just for starters, you have the pristine record. One drug violation in 34 years, and that one, he says, was a veterinarian error that he felt very badly about. “I try to do what’s best for the horse,” McGaughey tells Sports Illustrated.
In this recent Sports Illustrated article, writer Tim Layden explains the good feeling about a “throwback” trainer and horse:
Orb, meanwhile, is a majestic bay colt, 16 hands tall and — McGaughey guesses — something between 1,000 and 1,100 pounds. He is muscular, yet not thick, and lean, yet not slender. “He’s an old-time looking horse,” says McGaughey. “He’s not like those speedier, blockier-type horses that are very popular today. He’s a homebred, with a homebred pedigree on the female side, and I think he’s a throwback to all that.”
Orb was bred by owners Ogden Mills (Dinny) Phipps and Stuart S. Janney III, longtime horsemen with deep roots in the history of the game. Like earlier generations, they breed horses with the primary goal of racing them, hence their emphasis is on steady development, rather than sudden growth for a stunning appearance in the sales ring or while working a fast eighth of a mile at a two-year-old sale.
Good horses, bred to run. Good trainers, training instead of medicating. Good people, teaching horses the skills they’ll need in the future, beyond the racetrack. It’s been an interesting run-up to the Preakness. I’m looking forward to seeing what all of these good folk bring to the table next.