By Chris McGrath
He was a dreamer from Milwaukee and, after three years trying to be a trainer, still had only a handful of claimers in Chicago. Then one Sunday morning, driving into Hawthorne racetrack, Bobby Trussell noticed ash descending onto the windshield out of the dawn sky. He put his foot down and soon saw the flames in the clubhouse. When he arrived at the backstretch, cinders were sparking through the air and the fire crew were spraying the barn roofs.
“What about the horsemen’s office?” he asked. “All our papers are in there.”
“Don’t worry sir, we have that under control.”
Forty years later, Trussell can laugh at the memory.
“Just then the whole thing went up like a Christmas tree,” he says. “The stands, the office, all the papers with it. So I left, came to Lexington, and got a job at Gainesway. And that’s what really changed my life.”
In tandem, moreover, the whole racing landscape was also about to change. For while Trussell keeps his own role modestly in perspective, the fact is that when the sport celebrates the 35th edition of its greatest modern innovation, at Churchill Downs in a few days’ time, it should also remember him in its toast to his late boss John Gaines.
“We’d started calling it the Breeders’ Cup, internally, and at one point we said: ‘We need to get a name for it,'” he recalls. “But then we said: ‘What’s wrong with Breeders’ Cup?’ So we just stuck with it. To be there at the dawn of that, in my early thirties, it was very exciting.”
He wonders how many people still recall the genesis of the idea. At the time, Gainesway’s biggest client was Nelson Bunker Hunt. “And he had his own auction at the Kentucky Horse Center, instead of selling his yearlings at Keeneland,” Trussell explains. “He was accused of doing that to avoid the commission to Keeneland, but told Mr. Gaines: ‘That’s not the case, and I want to show them that.’ So Mr. Gaines said: ‘Let’s take the 5% to invest in a stakes programme for fillies. It’ll help the breeding, it’ll help the racing, it’ll help everything.’ So this money was accumulating. And then Mr. Gaines hired a consultant, who said that if we wanted to make an impact, we should make it one day, instead of a series, and not just for fillies.”
Gaines would take his team–Joe Taylor, Jim Philpott, Trussell–to lunch at the Lexington Country Club and thrash things out: “Bobby, how much money could we get for one stud fee for every stallion in Kentucky?”
“And we were literally doing this on the back of a napkin, trying to figure out a model,” recalls Trussell.
Young as he was, he had already worked for horsemen of no less consequence. In fact his first job, straight out of college, had been with John Nerud. Trussell had a degree in finance, his grandfather was a stockbroker, there was a job waiting. But his father had incautiously told him to follow his dreams.
“Sorry gramps,” said Trussell. “I’m going to Belmont Park to walk hots.”
He took his first ever plane trip to New York and showed up with his bags on the backstretch, clutching a letter from Nerud. Trouble was, Nerud was still in Florida. They wouldn’t let him in. Eventually Nerud’s assistant came to the gate, and Trussell showed him the letter.
“You got a college degree? What are you doing here, boy!?”
Next problem: they had mattress springs, but no mattress. Trussell spread his clothes over the springs and slept on those. Though he could not yet know it, fate was giving him a pinch right there. But first came the formative experience of working for the trainer of Dr. Fager, the horse who had hooked him on the game.
“I was totally in awe,” Trussell recalls. “Nerud would arrive at 8:00 in a big limousine. He wasn’t allowed to drive, because of when he’d hurt his head. It was Dr. [Charles] Fager, of course, who’d done the brain surgery.”
On his last day Trussell told Nerud he wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“You want to train horses?” Nerud replied. “I’ll tell you what Ben Jones told me: keep ’em fat, keep ’em happy, and never work ’em over a half-mile.”
Trussell found the system did not work quite so well for him. Then he spent a couple of winters working for Woody Stephens’s brother Bill at Aiken, learning how to break yearlings and develop juveniles.
“And Woody had the exact opposite approach,” Trussell explains. “Such a lesson. He started working his 2-year-olds on February 1. They’d work every three days and by the first week of March they’re all breaking down, they had ankles and they had shins and I’m thinking: ‘Man, this guy is a butcher!’ Then he’d back off a little, but only the worst ones, and by April they were all fine again. And he sent them to New York and we had six 2-year-old stakes winners out of that group of 24.
“Nerud didn’t have 2-year-old stakes winners, and even at three every single one of his horses had bucked shins or cradles round their necks. But then, when Woody’s horses were kind of done, Nerud would have all these stakes winners at four. Just showed there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
If neither approach was going to make a trainer of Trussell, the education had not been wasted on him. Having started out selling seasons, he gradually became right-hand man to Gaines in the quest for new stallions.
“I was like a scout for a football team,” he recalls. “That was back in the go-go days, the market was so strong. We’d bought Lyphard just before I got there, but then we bought Riverman, Green Dancer, Sharpen Up; we repatriated Dust Commander from Japan; we got a horse called Sweet Candy from Venezuela. I told Mr. Gaines: ‘I’ve done a little research and on form he’s kinda like an allowance horse here.’ He replied: ‘Bobby! The horse won a million and a half dollars–we can syndicate him.’ And we did, for $6 million or something. He knew the market.
“It was the European horses we could really arbitrage. Riverman was worth $7 million there and $14 million here. In essence, we could sell enough to own a quarter of the horse for nothing. But it was a win-win. It allowed the Europeans to monetize, and was the beginning of the melding of the two worlds.”
Times have changed. He remembers the controversy when as many as 70 mares were booked to Blushing Groom. But times changed for Trussell himself, too. Over the last four years, unfortunately, he has had to deal with the insidious consequences of Lyme Disease. Long before then, however, he had proved the range of his abilities as an equally high achiever beyond the Turf.
True, it was horses that first opened the door to his doing so. Trussell had horses in training in France with Alain Falourd, who introduced him to an equine chiropractor from Sweden–who, in turn, had a friend who claimed to have developed the world’s greatest mattress. Perhaps thinking back to those bedsprings in the Belmont tack-room, Trussell thought he should meet Mikael Magnusson. By the early 1990s, after all, the stallion business had gone into recession.
In the event, it turned out that Magnusson had at least as much interest in Trussell’s world as the other way round. “I got to Stockholm and we spent three days talking about horses, and about an hour at the end talking about mattresses,” recalls Trussell. “But I stayed at Mikael’s house and slept on the mattress, and that’s all you had to do. They were just launching at the time, it was perfect timing. They didn’t have anybody in the States, Mikael gave me exclusive U.S. distribution rights and we formed a company named Tempur-Pedic–and the rest is history, the thing took off and went public about 10 years later.”
The Swedish partners sold out in 2002 and, while Trussell stayed on as CEO, he stepped down in 2006. Magnusson, for his part, moved to Britain to train a small string of horses with conspicuous success–many owned in partnership with Trussell. But the latter’s return to the stallion business, as one of the buyers of Walmac, proved to be somewhat less happily timed.
“We bought two [stallions] in 2008 that a month later were worth about a third of what we paid for them,” he says ruefully. “With the collapse of the economy, and the foal crop halving, it shrunk the pie. Now you’ve three or four players dominating, and not as much room for the peripheral operations.”
But if his racing interests are for the time being confined to a couple in training with Patrick Biancone in Florida–he is meanwhile busy with a digital advertising start-up named CleanMedia–there is still much to learn from a man of such seasoned insight. Even a debilitating illness has not been wasted on Trussell’s inquiring outlook.
“Lyme Disease is becoming an epidemic,” he warns. “The Center for Disease Control says there are 300,000 new cases in America per year. I’ve met so many people who’ve been hit way worse than me: I’ve remained fairly functional the whole time, but I know people in wheelchairs, people who’ve gone blind, people who’ve been sick for 20 years and not known what to do.
“So anyway I’ve learned a lot about health. And I think that many of our advances in agriculture and medicine have come with a cost. A hundred years ago, they began to treat certain illnesses with mercury. About the most poisonous thing you can put in your body, and we have it in our teeth! Then there’s all the pesticide in our food, the preservatives, the fluorides. All of this has a cumulative effect. All these kids with asthma, with autism, things we didn’t used to have. Why? It’s because of what they’re ingesting in their food, in the air they breathe, and now the constant radiation from our phones and computers. It’s all taken its toll.”
Trussell extends the logic to Thoroughbreds, and notes parallels in other breeds as well. He laments the loss of local feed suppliers, and suspects that wholesalers are warehousing on such a scale that oats and hay are saturated with pesticides or preservatives. He questions water purity, too. And while he disparages as unscientific the notion that medication might have weakened the breed over a couple of generations, he is alarmed by a pharmaceutical culture.
“It’s not the drugs we gave these horses’ ancestors,” he says. “It’s the drugs we’re routinely giving them now–the legal drugs. They all have side-effects. You watch the TV commercials: they spend 20 seconds telling you how good a drug is, and
40 seconds telling you how it can kill you. The mentality is that there’s a drug for everything. If something’s wrong, you get a shot. Antibiotics ruin your gut–and people take them like candy. I’ve been helped way more myself by alternative treatments than any conventional ones.”
Trussell has admired at close quarters the skills of Magnusson himself as an amateur equine chiropractor. Without wishing to get into the politics, he suggests that the power of veterinarians on the backstretch sometimes blocks such therapies.
“In America we go left, left, left,” he says. “But that causes all sorts of injuries. They walk down the shedrow, they turn left. They go out the paddock, they turn left. I know Kenny McPeek one year suggested to the Gulfstream racing office that we could go the other way, on Tuesdays and Sundays or whatever it was. And he just got laughed off the stage.”
Quite apart from any dilution of the breed’s resilience, Trussell believes that vested interests have also contributed to its diminished output.
“Average starts have been going down for about 30 years,” he notes. “With this constant awareness of win percentage, the advent of the super trainer has to be a factor. Nerud and Stephens had 40 horses. Those were big operations. Now, there are trainers with 400. And they can’t run 10 horses in the same maiden race, so everyone has to wait their turn.
“It used to be that you got left at the gate, or had a bad trip, you’d run next week. Now we have to wait six weeks. That’s really a downer, for an owner, to pay all those bills and run so little. If we ran horses more, it would be a virtuous circle: we’d increase the field size, increase the handle. The trainers are the employees, after all, not the other way round.”
Here is a guy with no agenda, just a ton of experience inside and outside the sport; and a brain that can usefully process its lessons. Yes, he has been slowed down a little in recent times–“a big reason for cutting back my horse interests, and why Johnny Jones and I have decided to sell Walmac Farm.” (It will be sold at auction on Nov. 8.)
But if circumstances have confined his energies, the same has not applied to his acuity.
You have to seek him out; he’s not the type to shout from rooftops. But perhaps one or two of his messages will ultimately prove as important as even the institution of the Breeders’ Cup. That’s up to the industry. For himself, Trussell will make do with the intellectual stimulation of wagering.
“As my racing stable has decreased, my interest in handicapping has increased,” he says with a grin. “I can root them home just as easily–and I don’t have the overheads.”