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How “Super Trainers” Have Come to Dominate the Sport

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Coach and student: D. Wayne Lukas (right) and Todd Pletcher (left) | Getty Images

By Bill Finley

Wayne Lukas didn’t think like other Thoroughbred trainers. Maybe that was because he came from different sports (basketball and Quarter Horse racing), maybe it was because he never wanted to be just another average trainer, maybe it was because he was a visionary. Probably, it’s all of the above.

Lukas set up his Thoroughbred stable in Southern California in 1977 and by 1978, he had already established one of the top barns on the circuit. He won four stakes races that year and produced his first superstar, Terlingua. He was well on his way to becoming one of the dominant trainers in California.

For Lukas, that wasn’t good enough.

He saw the best trainers in California–Charlie Whittingham, Laz Barrera, Bob Wheeler, Ron McAnally–and wondered why they were content to have 25-30 horses, all of them stabled at the same place, which limited the earning power of the stable and the opportunity for the horses.

“Racing is tradition-bound,” Lukas said. “It’s very hard for anybody in racing to accept change of any kind. I thought that most of the people that I had encountered and were rubbing elbows with were not visionaries in a lot of areas.”

Back when Lukas started in Thoroughbred racing, a trainer was normally limited to about 40 stalls at a racetrack, which meant he or she could only have so many horses, unless they wanted to be at more than one track. Most were content to stay in one place, and since there was no horse-shortage problem, racing secretaries weren’t inclined to gave a large outfit extra stalls. You also didn’t have the many training centers that now exist which give trainers additional places to stable, like Palm Meadows in Florida and portions of the Saratoga backstretch that are now open in all but the winter months.

Lukas saw none of that as an impediment, so he planted a seed. He would not limit his operation to just California, and by stabling at several racetracks would expand his numbers. It was something a few claiming trainers, most notably Jack Van Berg, had done before, but no one had ever tried something like this with the type of high-quality horses that Lukas had. The seed took root and turned into an operation unlike anything racing had ever seen. He had divisions in California, New York, Florida and New Jersey. If he had cheaper horses that couldn’t make it a top-tier track, he’d find a place for them, like at Ak-Sar-Ben or at the Northern California tracks. He moved horses back and forth across the country like he was playing a game of chess, and he always seemed to be one move ahead of his opponent.

In 1987, his operation now spread across the country, Lukas won 53 graded stakes races at 13 different racetracks. The traditionalists were not happy. Jealousy was a byproduct of his success.

“I couldn’t have cared less what people thought,” he said. “I thought the Thoroughbred business was stagnant and I was cocky, brash, arrogant and ambitious.”

All that mattered to Lukas was that he was winning races and his clients were happy.

“Every horse that we purchased or who came into our care ended up being somewhat productive, making a mark somewhere in the industry,” he said. “That’s because we were able to move them around to find a spot where they fit and they could win. A lot of records fell into place and a lot of things we couldn’t have achieved otherwise, we did. It was very common for us on any given weekend to win six or seven stakes races.”

There was a time when a single trainer winning six or seven stakes on a weekend was unheard of. Not anymore. Lukas provided the blueprint for the mega-stable and proved that it could be done. It was inevitable that others, including some of his former assistants, would copy his methodology. Do it right and you can make a lot of money and train some of the best horses in the county.

At age 82, Lukas’s operation looks nothing like it did in the eighties. He currently has 38 horses under his care and has only one division: Oaklawn in the winter, Kentucky the rest of the year. But he has been replaced by seven or eight trainers who have not only equaled what he has done, but with some, taken it to another level. Lukas said he never had more than 150 horses. At the height of the 2018 season, Chad Brown–the two-time reigning Eclipse Award Outstanding Trainer–will have 220 horses under his care.

We now have a name for the Chad Browns, Todd Pletchers, Steve Asmussens, Bob Bafferts and the rest: “Super Trainers.”

What is a super trainer? There’s no precise definition, but it’s more or less this: a trainer who has a huge stable, is based at more than one racetrack and wins a ton of major races.

Lukas started the super-trainer concept, but it didn’t take root overnight. Probably the next super trainer was his former assistant Todd Pletcher. He was confident he could do what Lukas had done. In 2004, Pletcher won 239 races overall, including 43 graded stakes.

“Wayne had so many strengths and one of them is organizational,” Pletcher said. “That’s one of the main things I learned from him. It was his attention to detail, his ability to set up an organization and make it run smoothly. With our own barn, we took a lot of things from that.”

Pletcher is the prototypical super trainer of the modern era. He has about 160 horses spread among three locations and every year restocks his barn with some of the best-bred, most expensive horses that go through the sales ring. Like Lukas during his heyday, he is capable of winning multiple stakes races across the country on any weekend.

But he is not alone and, in fact, in many categories, has been eclipsed by rival Chad Brown. Super trainers have never been more in vogue or more dominant.

“It seems like every big owner only knows the phone number of four of five trainers,” said Midwestern-based trainer Dan Peitz, whose stable houses 16 horses.

In 2017, there were 107 Grade I races run in the U.S. Thirty of them–28%–were won by two trainers. Brown won 16 and Bob Baffert won 14. Throw in Mark Casse (6), Jerry Hollendorfer (5), Pletcher (4) and Steve Asmussen (4) and seven trainers won 45.8% of all Grade I races last year.

In this year’s 10-horse GI Belmont Stakes, five were trained by Hall of Famers (Lukas, Bill Mott, Steve Asmussen and two from the Baffert barn). Three more were trained by certain future Hall of Famers (Chad Brown and two from Pletcher). The remaining two were trained by Doug O’Neill and Dale Romans, potential Hall of Famers.

It’s the proverbial snowball effect. A group of hyper-competitive, driven trainers have all emerged at about the same time, some of whom have started with only a handful of horses. While success on the track has always translated to more owners and more horses, this phenomenon is something different. It’s almost as if once Lukas shattered racing’s stereotypes about how many horses a trainer could have and still be successful and manage each one effectively, there was no going back.

They start winning. Clients see that they are winning. They give them more horses and better horses. Other owners take their horses away from trainers whose numbers are less than spectacular and give them to the larger stables. The trainer’s stable grows some more, it wins more races and that attracts even more owners and better horses. Owners, naturally, want to hire the best talent available. The result is that seven or eight trainers seem to train 80% of the best horses in the sport.

“People hire these guys because they do a great job,” said Jerry Crawford, who heads the Donegal Racing partnership and uses, among others, Mott, Pletcher and Baffert. “Winning Grade Is is hard no matter what. The reason why winning at the highest level in horse racing is so special is because it’s incredibly hard to do. When you work with these marquee trainers, if you give them a horse that is good enough, the odds are great that they will get the best possible out of that horse.”

No one personifies the super-trainer phenomenon more than Brown. A former assistant to Hall of Famers Bobby Frankel and Shug McGaughey and an Ivy League graduate (Cornell), he went out on his own in 2007 at the age of 28. He was guaranteed nothing.

He started with 10 horses, but it wasn’t the numbers or quality in his barn that began arguably the fastest rise to the top in racing history. Brown is smart, organized, works tirelessly at his craft, understands the importance of hiring only the very best to work under him and absolutely hates to lose. It’s a recipe for success.

“I am a challenge-oriented person and I have been that way since I was a kid,” Brown said. “I feel like I need to be doing something with my life that is challenging and I find that this profession is both challenging and rewarding. Our team is faced with challenges every day and that drives us to always try to get better.”

In his first full year, 2008, he won 31 races and had a major breakthrough when he won the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf with Maram (Sahm). That’s the type of win that gets you noticed. Brown’s victory total increased every year, and in 2014, he won 147 races, 17 graded stakes and three Breeders’ Cup races. In 2017, he won 213 races, including 47 graded stakes. For his career, he is winning at a 25% clip.

He is so much in demand that other super trainers are losing their horses to him. The owner of Instilled Regard (Arch), a $1.05 million 2-year-old purchase, who was fourth in the GI Kentucky Derby, recently took the horse away from Jerry Hollendorfer and turned him over to Brown.

He apologizes for nothing.

“I am doing a service to the industry by taking certain clients that I have had and doubling and tripling or even quadrupling the amount of horses they own since they first hired me,” he said. “That’s because they have had success with us. These are people who, if they were in another barn and weren’t doing as well, might not be in the game any longer. Be careful throwing too many arrows at the larger, successful stables that are cultivating owners, increasing the amount of dollars spent and the overall commerce in the sport. That trickles down to the breeders, the racetrack owners and others.”

To be a super trainer, you must be like Brown, focused solely on your career and willing to forego any sort of normal life.

“There’s a price for this,” said Mark Casse, who trains about 125 horses. “We don’t have days off. Not even Christmas. It’s an all-day deal, an all-night deal. Myself, I thrive on that. I get bored easily.”

“I work really hard at this,” Baffert said. “I don’t take vacations and I don’t go anywhere. It’s a lot of hard work and effort and that’s why I’m rewarded with a lot of good horses.”

Most anyone would like to train the type of horses that Baffert has and make the kind of money that he does, but some trainers say it’s not worth the sacrifice.

“Those super trainer guys, the majority of them have white hair and they’re constantly on the telephone,” said Florida-based trainer Larry Bates. “I generally carry between 12 and 15 horses. I’m older than all those guys and my hair hasn’t turned white yet. I get to go fishing. I love what I’m doing and I’ve had one owner for 23 years and another for 15. It’s kind of like a family affair. I wish those guys with all those horses all the luck in the world and the composure they have is amazing, but I don’t envy them.”

But just as Bates wants to spend time fishing and is happy having a dozen horses, the super trainer wants to be involved with his stable 24/7 and can’t win enough races to satisfy their desire to be the very best there is. That may not be a life for everyone, but it works for them and they have the numbers to prove it. What they are selling is their highly successful record, and most top owners are no longer willing to settle for anything less.

This is Part I of a two-part series. In Thursday’s TDN, Bill Finley will explore Part II of the “Super Trainers” discussion: Are super trainers good or bad for the sport?

 

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