Like the owners who hire them, trainers tend to be rugged individuals – strong- minded men and women who, in most cases are self-made. Many started out as hot-walkers, exercise riders, jockeys, or yearling breakers and managed to “pull away from the pack” by sheer hard work and smarts.

Trainers, a proud lot, regard themselves as professionals – experts for hire – and not as “employees” in the common sense. There was a time, only recently passed when the saying on the “backside” (common terminology for the stable area) went something like, “Owners should be treated like mushrooms: kept in the dark and fed bull…” Well, you get the idea. Fortunately, increased involvement by knowledgeable owners and a new breed of modern businessmen-trainers, have combined to change that attitude.

For those of us who don’t know a horse’s hock from his stifle, we tend to look upon trainers in the same manner as we view our medical doctors. We take their statements on faith and pray that they make wise choices. In most cases, we don’t even know the questions to ask, much less the course of action to take.

Unlike doctors, however, even the top trainers will freely admit that the difference between an amateur and a “pro” is pretty much the quality of his guesswork. “Training” horses to win is not an exact science; it is composed largely of instinct, talent, a trained eye, a smartly-run barn, the ability to maintain relationships with volatile people over the long term and above all, hands-on, in-the-trenches experience.

“Training” in this field, if it can be defined, is the most akin to the role of an athletic coach. The trainer will help spot and recruit talented horses for the owner then take responsibility for the horses’ health and their individual conditioning programs, including their feed and feed supplements, any needed “sports type” treatments such as poultices and bandaging, and an understanding of when to call for veterinary care. They keep an eye out for injuries or developing problems, monitor each horse’s mood and psychology, and give their judgment on the best workout and racing schedules for each horse.

Unlike athletic coaches, however, there is never an “off season” for the racehorse trainer. They work seven days a week, every week of the year, and nightlife is a long-forgotten memory. Most successful trainers rise at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m., and often put in 16-hour days. There is a sense of mission about their work. Clearly, their careers as trainers are looked on far more as a calling than as a job.

For California’s almost 8,000 racehorse owners, there are over 600 State licensed thoroughbred racehorse trainers to choose from.

For California’s almost 8,000 racehorse owners, there are over 600 State licensed thoroughbred racehorse trainers to choose from, and although they clump somewhat into schools of thought and specialties, no two are alike. Finding the right trainer for you is, conservatively, more than half the battle when it comes to building for yourself a satisfying career as an owner

Choosing A Trainer

Once the emotional commitment to owning a horse has been made, the process of selecting a trainer becomes crucial. Experienced owners and neophytes alike can come a cropper at this crux. How do you determine which trainer fits your needs as well as your horses’? The answer lies in asking the right questions. The first set of questions is those you must ask yourself.

Horse owning is a gamble. It is akin to the lesson you learn when you bet that 2-5 shot and the 35-1 goes wire to wire. How much are you prepared to gamble for the thrill of owning your own franchise? It will come down to a combination of passion and pocketbook… and, depending on the level at which you wish to participate, you may need both in abundance. The money you spend as an owner of racehorses is money you must be prepared to kiss goodbye. Bad breaks and good ones, faith, slumps, hunches and especially luck are the ultimate rulers in this sport, so it takes the right trainer to make the experience tolerable.

In selecting a trainer (or, eventually, trainers), there are three basic factors you will need to weigh: 1) how much your budget will allow (A trainers success rate raises or lowers his “price”), 2) how much hands-on participation you want and expect, and 3) the one that best suits your own taste and philosophy. The amount of direct participation wanted in the progress of your horse is a determining factor.

For example: A trainer whose success rate is high will command a higher price, and has the option – if it’s in his makeup – of taking more control of your horse’s career and soliciting your involvement and opinion less than you would like. In this case, then, you must weigh the value of his or her “win average” – i.e., your security – against your desire to be a hands-on owner.

In the extreme, a very successful trainer with an autocratic bent is likely to prefer making most of the decisions on his or her own, from choosing the date when the horse will race and the level at which it will run to which jockey will ride it. This trainer may also prefer to determine the extent of veterinary care needed, which vet will treat the horse, and what treatments will be administered. On the other hand, the top trainer may have a garrulous personality, enjoy talking to you and conferring with you fairly often, and even relish the process of educating you about thoroughbred horses.

The point is: decide what you want most and find a trainer who will be comfortable with those wishes. The top trainers generally don’t need your business (unless you’re bringing a lot of it) – so if you want a high level of involvement and participation, you may have to drop down the “win ladder” a little to find it. But don’t mistake the willingness to listen as a sign of insecurity or weakness. It takes a very well schooled and sure handed trainer to be willing to listen and, in fact, teach an owner what must be learned to make the right choices. And no matter how willing or “democratic” the trainer, remember to respect the fact that he or she has more experience with horses and with racing than you do. (As one amiable veteran trainer likes to put it, “If you know so much about these horses, then what are you paying me for?”)

Note: A subheading to all of the above information is that there are trainers with definite specialties. Some trainers have reputations for breaking young or difficult horses, some bringing horses back from injury, others for their skill in developing two-year-olds, or fillies, or sprinters, or turf runners. Some trainers are “known” claiming trainers, while others are “buy-sell”’ specialists and won’t be interested in the claiming game at all (until such time as you no longer want a particular horse). The above-described trainers represent the extremes, and not the norm, but the question of “specialty” is one to be raised before going any further.

Once you have determined how deeply you wish to be involved in the management of your thoroughbred, be sure to immediately lay that out for any trainer you interview. Only by so doing will you find a “marriage” that suits your style of operation.

Finding a few names of trainers who might suit you can be gone about in several ways. You might put in a good bit of time at the track, asking around among the veteran race trackers which trainers they most admire, talking to thoroughbred owners, and getting recommendations. Trainers are frequent visitors to the owner’s boxes, so a preliminary introduction and the exchange of enough conversation with the trainer to at least determine the “cut off of his jib” is not impossible.

TOC offers a thorough Trainer Directory on this website which lists over 200 licensed trainers in the state. The TOC staff will also gladly provide introductions to any trainers you are interested in interviewing.

You may, according to most trainers, feel free to call and ask for an appointment to talk. The best hours to call, for them, are between 9 and 11 AM – before and after that, their days are generally mayhem. Be aware that if you’re calling a top trainer, he or she may not be taking on new clients or horses, (unless your pockets have no bottoms and your ambitions no ceilings – or unless you are offering horses of top stakes class, which no trainer can resist).

Though you may be most comfortable inviting the trainer to lunch to talk, it would be far more enlightening to arrange the meeting at his or her barn some mid morning, where you can see the staff and horses and get a feel for how the barn is run. The barn should be orderly and raked by 10:30, the horses exercised, hot walked, bathed and bandaged. The trainer and an assistant trainer, if it’s a very big operation, should have seen every horse that morning and be familiar with the physical and emotional condition of each. No matter how “important” the trainer, he or she should know every horse by name and by sight, and the good ones will be proud to show that they do.

Once your interview is set, be ready with the questions you want answers to: these are people with very little spare time.

Suggested Questions include:
  • What is your philosophy of training? (Listen well.)
  • How much contact do you think is appropriate between an owner and trainer? (i.e., how much and how often if I have one horse with you, or if I have three, or if I have ten)?
  • Is it preferable for me to call you, or vice versa? If you’d rather I call, what times of the day are best?
  • Will you automatically call me if the horse is going to work, or if it is sick, or if something is developing with its physical condition or training program?
  • Are you likely to include me, or consult with me, on the selection of races for my horse? (The answers to these questions will give you an insight into the depth to which you will be invited to participate in your horses care.)
  • What is your “day rate” per horse? The range can vary widely depending on the trainer’s reputation and “batting average.” (Figure on about a third less for Northern California.) The day rate is a necessity. Every sound or reasonably sound horse requires hours of daily attention. It must be exercised in some manner, whether that consists of walking, jogging, galloping, breezing or actually working. It must be taken from it stall, bathed, and groomed. Its stall must be cleaned and its food prepared and served. The “day-rate,” and what trainer services are incorporated in it, is completely negotiable. The variables, more or less are: what you are offering in terms of horses, what the trainer’s success rate and reputation can command, and how skilled both of you are at negotiation. Take your time, and do the research.

Though “stars” in any field can and usually will command “star fees,” a trainer’s day rate is rarely set by caprice or ego. With a higher day rate, you are also likely to find a higher employee-to-horse ratio, better feed supplements, hand walking (as opposed to machine walking) and generally more attentive care of the horses in that barn. Most trainers will insist that they break even or actually lose money on their day rates. Why would they be willing to lose money? Because, like you, they only make “real money” on their percentage of winnings. They may, if they see a promising horse, go into day rate deficit to turn that horse into a winner, because that’s where the profit is. On the other hand, there are smaller, starting out trainers who will and must, because they have fewer horses of poorer quality, make their living on their day rate. Your eyes and wits will probably tell you the tale. An interesting fact to keep in mind when considering day rate is this: it costs as much, if not more, to condition and train a cheap horse as an expensive one.

  • What does your day rate include? The items usually covered are feed, grooming, exercise riders, ponies for workout, paddock and gate schooling, hot walking, vitamins, bandaging and similar supplies, the assistant trainer’s fee, and your share of Worker’s Compensation insurance for every employee of the barn. Again, this is a negotiable arrangement, and if you feel that more should be provided under a trainer’s day rate, say so and discuss it. Some commonly non-covered expenses in the day rate are (though not limited to): 1) farrier (shoeing) expenses, 2) veterinary costs (visits, X-Rays, drugs, etc.), and 3) transport.
  • What is your average that bill per horse per month? Some trainers use vets almost compulsively, and with good results, while others use them sparingly and with equally good results. It depends on the trainer and, to some extent, the quality of horses he has to work with. Again, a paradoxical note to keep in mind is that the vet bills for an inexpensive horse are likely to be higher than for an expensive horse. Finally, Ask if it is the trainer’s practice to call you/ warn you/ consult with you on major veterinary expenses. Does the trainer check the vet bill before forwarding it on to you?
  • What is your background; how much hands-on experience have you had, and who taught you? On average, the more years of first-hand experience trainers have had, and the more years in business, the better they are.
  • What percentage do you charge on winning horses? This is usually either a 10% share for the trainer, plus 1-3% share for the barn – i.e., all personnel from the assistant trainer down to the grooms – or a flat percentage of 12 to 13%, which includes everyone (except the jockey). By the way, the above figure is generally more negotiable than any other, including the trainer’s day rate.
  • Am I invited to visit the barn and see my horse (perhaps even curry it and feed it a carrot) at will, or am I restricted? This facet of being an owner may be important to you or not, but it also may change for you, and it’s worth getting the answer now.

The gentleman’s sport of horseracing is one of the few business situations left in which management (owner) and contractor (trainer) generally operate on a handshake, which makes communication – including the full discussion and understanding beforehand of what you’re shaking on – even more crucial than in ordinary enterprises. As uncommon as it is to sign contracts with trainers, some owners will insist on getting certain details in writing, such as the amount of the trainer’s commissions on purses and the sale of horses, and a list of the expenses not covered by the daily training fee.

The key to everything, however, is good communication from the outset. How do you lay the groundwork for mutual respect and trust, for a relationship that invites candid exchange and avoids rancor? Brand into yourself an appropriate level of expectation. For example, only two out of three unraced thoroughbreds ever get to a race, and a few of those “survivors” ever get to the top level. This is rarely the fault of the trainer, and should not be assumed to be. Horses behave with what one observer called “an awesome randomness” when they race: somewhere inside, all hot bloods still possess a wildness that a trainer can’t always predict and a jockey can’t always control. Most horses, for whatever reason, lose. If your horse loses, ask questions first, and only “shoot” much later, and never in the heat of disappointment.

Finally, no matter who you choose, it still behooves you to carry into the relationship as much knowledge about training and racing operations as you can possibly absorb (see, for example, the chapters on “Veterinary Costs”)… but keep close at hand a reasonable amount of humility.

There are questions you will be dying to ask, and often, such as when will my horse be ready to enter in a race? This is a world of guesses and tiptoeing. There are times when the process of getting a horse ready to race feels akin to the speed at which grass grows. Forward progress takes weeks. The bills mount. Economic overwhelm looms. Patience wears thin.

If the horse’s progress is excruciatingly slow, it might make more sense to send the horse to a training facility where the costs are almost half of what they are at a racetrack. If this is done, the trainer loses his daily fee. (While trainers do not seek to “lumber” owners with costs, some may resent losing control of the training of the horse and the daily fee attached. This is a discussable item in any ongoing, forthright owner trainer dialogue.) The fact is, your horse will be ready when it’s ready, and no amount of pressure from you or your trainer will change that very much. All you can do is be tuned to pick the right moment.

Finally, there are a few simple “wisdoms” which will help and your all-important relationship with your trainer: 1.) Be honest to the point of bluntness. 2.) Remember “luck,” and avoid the temptation to blame. 3.) When in doubt, don’t suspect… ask. 4.) when you ask, listen. 5.) Be open about your intentions – for example, if you plan to move your horse up to a more noted trainer as soon as you can, say so; if you plan to enlist other trainers for your other horses, say so.

Your trainer, ideally, should be as close and as trusted as “family.” The world of racing is a small world: relationships last a long time, and bad blood will eventually come around and bite you where it hurts. Finally, if at any point you find you don’t trust your trainer, you should, both for the trainer’s sake and yours, get another.

Next Section… Forming Your Business

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