By now, everyone in horse racing knows that Olympics medalist, Alpine skier, Bode Miller has announced his intention to become a Trainer of Thoroughbreds. That’s nice.
I’ve read everything I can about his thoughts on the subject, because I don’t want to write this Open Letter to Mr. Miller and come across as being, well, judgmental.
I want to be fair, of course: I understand his passion for the sport. And no one understands his love for horses more than I. But there’s a big gap between being a lover of horses and becoming a Trainer. If love for the animals and the sport could make one a Trainer, I’d have had my license 50 years ago.
So, sans any more ado, here are my thoughts, written as a letter to Mr. Miller. (Everyone who’s not Bode Miller is invited to read, of course.)…
Dear Mr. Miller:
With great interest, I’ve read several articles about your passion for horse racing, and your intention to become a Thoroughbred Trainer. Every time I hear or read about someone who falls head-over-heels in love with my sport of horse racing, I smile. Our sport needs more fans who become owners, who get in the game and stay here.
Your passionate embrace of horse racing is wonderful, and, I hope, contagious. I hope that all your friends and loved ones catch your fever and join our community.
But that word, community, is my reason for writing this letter to you today. Horse racing very much is a community. As you’ve no doubt observed, we have our own “insiders’ language”; our traditions; shared love of The Horse–and standard, accepted practices for the way things are done. (This “standard…practices” concept is not intended to indicate that things don’t–or can’t–change, not at all. But some things are the way they are for a reason.)
I’m delighted that you want to become a Trainer, but I hope that you don’t think that you can just phone it in, Mr. Miller. I read today on www.thisishorseracing.com, that you’d said
“…I will be a trainer in the next year or two. I’m not that interested in getting bit and kicked and punched by horses so I try to have somebody else do that part of it.”
Reality Check: When I read that, I cringed.
Wrestling with horses–having your hands on every part of a horse’s body, and knowing the physiology of that body–is absolutely essential if you’re going to become a Trainer. I cannot think of any Trainer, anywhere, who’s managed to dodge the responsibility and the joy of spending outrageous numbers of hours touching horses. In some ways, you may see horse racing as pageantry, elegance, unbridled excitement and, yes, an endorphin high.
But for every high of a win, there are thousands of hours spent checking a horse’s left-front frog–mucking the excrement and urine from your horse’s stall–pacing the floor at 3AM over a horse who’s colicked–and, yes, sometimes just feeling a horse’s legs to check for shins.
(That is, bucked shins–of course the horse has shins–but do you know what it means when a horse’s shin has bucked? And what’s a frog?)
(I don’t mean to assume that you have no experience with the physical aspects of a horse–perhaps you do know about shins and frogs–and withers, guts and floating teeth. If I assume incorrectly, I apologize profusely.)
But unfortunately, your statement makes it sound like you’re a privileged, arrogant athlete who’s used to getting his own way. And that you think that others should do the horse-touching for you.
It’s just not possible, Mr. Miller: like many celebrities, you have people and a partner. Your statement reads like you’re willing to pay someone to do the hard, exhausting work–and take the chances of getting bitten–that you need to do if you’re going to prove that you’re a real Trainer.
I know that you’re used to doing life FAST: throwing your body down a mountain in the Alps at break-neck speed must be an outrageous high. I skied, 30 years ago, and I understand that addictive, endorphin high. It’s exhilarating. I’ve never skied in mountains like the Alps, but I do Get It.
I fear that you crave that same kind of high with horse racing. I know that your partner (who sounds like a great horsewoman, with many years’ experience)–and no doubt, Bob Baffert, and others–have told you that, no, you don’t win every race. In fact, a Trainer who wins 27% of the time is considered to be awesome.
There are no short-cuts in this sport. I did a study yesterday, of requirements for a Trainer’s license in a few states and commonwealths here in the U.S. Yes, in some places, you can get a license in exchange for basically ten bucks and a carton of smokes. Here in New York State, however, one cannot even become a licensed Assistant Trainer without spending three years in the trenches. I’ve pasted the laws and requirements at the end of this letter.
I’m afraid that your passion for becoming a Trainer may fade away when you realize that real Trainers are up at 3AM, and in their barns–touching horses--by 4 or 5AM. I’m thinking of two particular Trainers who are friends–so I know their routines very well. Gary Contessa is a highly-respected Trainer with several decades of experience. The man’s a legend. Abigail Adsit is in her second year of training, and already has a huge fan base because of her talent. Both Trainers have been in the saddle since very early childhood–and both paid their dues by working their ways up from hotwalker/groom to Assistant Trainer, then Trainer.
And both are at their barns every single morning, taking their chances of getting bitten, kicked and pushed by the horses they love. They do it because they DO love the horse, and they love our sport.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that, in order to be a good Trainer you must have decades of experience as a rider. If you haven’t been riding since childhood, that’s fine. But I am suggesting, strongly, that you take some time to think about that statement, and mistaken notion that you can hire others to do the hands-on work that every Trainer had to do, in order to get where they are today.
There are no short-cuts. Horses are the very soul of horse racing: obviously, without them, there’s no sport to love. Were I you, I’d call Gary Contessa or Abigail Adsit, and ask for a job as a hotwalker, then a groom. I know, that’s a very humbling concept, isn’t it?
But it sounds to me that you need to spend many dirty, sweaty, exhausting hours in the stalls of horses, wrapping their legs–looking deeply into their eyes–getting them to trust you as you tend to their physical needs.
I feel badly, because I don’t know if you’re willing to start at the bottom and work your way up to Trainer.
And if you’re not–that’s a pity, because an athlete of your caliber should understand the enormous amount of time and Sweat Equity that goes into making it into the race. You have a farm–you have a partner–you have horses–and it sounds like you have a boatload of science and technology.
But what you need to understand is that all the science in the world cannot create a great equine athlete. Horses are sentient, thinking, emotional beings–not machines, or technology. You can tweak them all you want–but in the end, all you have is your relationship with that horse–the connection that you forged between your two hearts–and that horse’s desire to go out there and win, for you.
You can spend all the money on Earth, setting up your farm and your stable. But if you’re not willing to invest that which really matters–your time, your energy and your very self–then I’m afraid that you’ll be sorely disappointed. Horses–and horse racing–need Trainers who love horses, first and foremost. Without that connection to The Horse, a potential Trainer is doomed to failure.
Don’t fail, Mr. Miller. Investing money isn’t going to make you a Trainer–good or bad. Only your willingness to do the dirty work of this very dirty, very beautiful sport will give you the foundation that you really need to make your mark here.
I wish you Wisdom, Hope and Success as you move forward. Please take the time to study those who’ve succeeded–and follow in their path of hard work and dedication to The Horse. There are no shortcuts–don’t do yourself and the horses an injustice by trying to create one.
Horse-Lover, Race Fan
Requirements for Assistant Trainer and Trainer Licenses in New York State. Thank you for the information, Charlie Diamond and the New York State Gaming Commission:
§ 4002.21. License requirements for assistant trainer.
(a) In addition to the qualifications set forth in section 4002.8 of this Part, an initial license as an assistant trainer may only be issued to an applicant who:
(1) is at least 18 years of age;
(2) has a minimum of three years experience in the care of horses on the race track or horse farm, at least two full years of which is as a gainfully employed licensed groom or licensed exercise person;
(3) is vouched for, in writing, by the licensed trainer by whom such assistant trainer will be employed;
(4) passes a written or oral test conducted by the commission, which may include questions on horse anatomy, disease, medication, applicable rules, regulations and training conditions of racing, stable business management, training procedures and equipment; and
(5) passes a practical examination administered by the commission, which may include questions on anatomy, lameness/disease and care of a horse and demonstrations of bandaging, saddling and other standard practices.
(b) The commission may waive such testing requirements if the applicant has been licensed as an assistant trainer in another jurisdiction for at least one year and otherwise satisfies the commission as to experience and competence.
§ 4002.22. License qualifications for trainer.
In addition to the qualifications set forth in section 4002.8 of this Part, an initial trainer’s license may only be issued to an applicant who:
(a) has been employed at least 12 months as a licensed assistant trainer in this State; or
(b) has been licensed as a trainer in another jurisdiction for one year, and presents a certificate from the stewards at a track in such other jurisdiction that they believe such applicant to be a competent and qualified trainer.