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For Drysdale, the More Things Stay the Same
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Neil Drysdale
© Benoit
By Lucas Marquardt
Early last month, Hall of Fame trainer Neil Drysdale moved from Hollywood Park--where he had been stabled for some three decades--to Santa Anita. After 76 years, Hollywood Park was closing its doors, soon to become a housing development, and Drysdale was one of dozens of horsemen forced to relocate. It wasn’t the first big transition for the 66-year-old Hall of Fame conditioner in recent years. There’s been a slow changing of the guard in the local training ranks in Southern California. Young guns like Simon Callaghan, Dan Blacker and Leonard Powell have risen in the ranks, while there’s been a consolidation of top racing prospects among just a handful of trainers, Bob Baffert and John Sadler among them. With many of Drysdale’s owners getting on in years, that’s meant he, like everyone else, has had to compete for those horses who bring Saturday-afternoon glory--and ultimately more horses. On a personal level, meanwhile, Drysdale became a father for the first time in 2007 when his wife, bloodstock agent Shawn Dugan, gave birth to daughter Lita.
Yet with all these changes, many things remain the same for Drysdale. He still maps out training schedules and race plans with longtime assistant John O'Donoghue each morning. He still can be found each September at Keeneland, inspecting yearlings in the hopes of finding his next star. And he still knows how to train a horse. More than anything, Drysdale knows how to train a horse.
That was in evidence last weekend at Santa Anita, when Jose Nelson and David Heerensperger’s Winning Prize (Arg) (Pure Prize), a 5-year-old Argentine import, led every step in the one-mile GI Frank E. Kilroe Mile S., stamping himself as a major force in the turf division. His winning time of 1:32.44 was the second-fastest ever in the race behind only Atticus’s mark of 1:31.89 in 1997.
“That horse is just quality,” Drysdale understatedly said after the race.
A Triple Group 1 winner in Argentina, Winning Punch is now 3-for-5 in the U.S. and was capturing his second straight after a smart off-the-pace tally in the GII Arcadia S. Feb. 1.
Drysdale is in his fifth decade of successfully mining prospects from South America. “When I worked for [Hall of Fame trainer Charlie] Whittingham, I would go down and buy his South American horses,” said Drysdale.
Winning Prize had been on Drysdale’s radar when he was approached to purchase an interest in him. “We were aware of him, because we’d been watching another horse down there and saw some of his races,” said Drysdale. “But then Ignacio Correas [IV], who trains at Sagamore Farm in Maryland, called and said that [South American owner] Jose Nelson might be willing to parter on the horse.”
Drysdale and his wife Shawn made the trip to Argentina and were impressed. “He’s a very handsome horse,” said Drysdale. “He’s the type that when he gallops past, people ask who it is.”
Drysdale presented the horse to his client David Heerensperger, who purchased an interest, and Winning Prize was on his way to the U.S.
The Kilroe was Drysdale’s first Grade I victory since another Argentine import, Miss Match (Arg) (Indygo Shiner), upset Switch (Quiet American) in the G1 Santa Margarita in March of 2011. But despite the long gap between Grade I drinks, Drysdale has saddled plenty of stakes winners in the interim. Kid Dreams (Lemon Drop Kid) won last year’s GIII Hawthorne Derby, while the Euro import Lucayan (Fr) (Turtle Bowl {Ire}) annexed the GII Hollywood Turf Cup in December. Drysdale saddled the 1-2 in Del Mar’s CTT and Thoroughbred Owners of California H. last August, with Topic (Discreet Cat), off a close-up third in the GI American Oaks, defeating stablemate Freedom Reigns (Ire) (Jeremy). And the progressive Fire With Fire (Distorted Humor) won a pair of stakes last term.
Other Drysdale-trained standouts in recent years include the Grade II winners Bourbon Bay (Sligo Bay {Ire}), Vamo a Galupiar (Chi) (Proud Citizen), Liberian Freighter (Bertrando), Dreamy Kid (Lemon Drop Kid) and Marsh Side (Gone West).
Drysdale quietly went on several hot streaks last year, as well. He won four straight at Del Mar in August; later in the fall, he won six of nine starts during one stretch.
So yeah, Neil Drysdale can still train a horse.


Man on the Move…
Neil Drysdale was born in Haslemere, Surrey, England in 1947. His father, a Royal Marine, served with the U.S. Marines in Korea. In the 1960s, after studying at the University of Barcelona, Drysdale taught English as a foreign language for a spell, but a love of horses eventually brought him west. He got a job at Tartan Farms in Ocala, then spent two years in South America, helping establish stud farms in Argentina and Venezuela. When he returned to the U.S., Drysdale signed on with trainer Roger Laurin for two years, then served as an assistant to Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham for four years in the 1970s. In 1974, he began the private trainer for Corbin Robertson's Saron Stable.
Drysdale’s first breakout horse was the filly Bold 'n Determined. Owned by Saron Stable, Bold 'n Determined won all four starts at two in 1979, including the GII Oak Leaf S. A year later, the daughter of Bold And Brave won 9 of 12 through a championship season by any other name. A six-pack of Grade I’s that year included the Kentucky Oaks, CCA Oaks, Acorn S. and Spinster S., and only the Kentucky Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk--who she beat by a nose in the GI Maskette in their lone meeting on the year--kept her from divisional honors. In 1997, Bold 'n Determined was inducted into Racing’s Hall of Fame.
Drysdale’s next star, and next Hall of Famer, was Princess Rooney. The popular gray daughter of Verbatim gave Drysdale a second Kentucky Oaks in 1984, and a year later took the inaugural GI Breeders' Cup Distaff S. In all, she won 17 of 21 starts and earned over $1.3 million.
Further Breeders’ Cup winners came with champion Tasso (’85 Juvenile), Prized (’89 Turf), champion Hollywood Wildcat (’93 Distaff), and the latter’s son War Chant (’00).
And, of course, there was A.P. Indy. The $2.9 million Keeneland July topper won the GI Hollywood Futurity at two in 1991, then established himself as the firm Derby favorite with a win over Bertrando in the GI Santa Anita Derby. A foot bruise kept him from the first Saturday in May, but he rebounded to take the GI Belmont S. and, later in the year, the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic. He was named Horse of the Year and entered the Hall of Fame in 2000.
A.P. Indy ensured his legacy as one of the best sires of the last quarter century, and has almost single-handedly ensured the Bold Ruler line through Seattle Slew will continue through the next few decades. Interestingly, Drysdale has trained only a handful of A.P. Indy's offspring. "We've had four, maybe five through the years," said Drysdale. "Really not very many at all."
One of Drysdale’s most notable training jobs came with Fusaichi Pegasus. Another sale topper, the $4 million September grad became the first betting favorite to win the Derby in 2000, and did so with a quirky--some would call difficult--personality that saw him rear, wheel, balk, throw his jockey and/or stare off at a crowd, depending on his mood. One day, after arriving at Churchill Downs prior to the Derby, Fusaichi Pegasus reared back and tossed his exercise rider, landing on his haunches before Drysdale, nearby, quickly grabbed hold of the colt.
"He hasn't put on a real show," Drysdale told the Sun Sentinel. "When he's in California, he can really do some tricks."
Drysdale also trained the champion Fiji (GB), and numerous Grade I winners including Aragorn (Ire), Deputy Governor, Labeeb (GB), Splendid Blended, Fourty Niners Son, Artiste Royal (Ire), Storming Home (GB), Hawksley Hill (Ire), Gorgeous, Musical Chimes, White Heart (GB), and Sarafan.
Two Classic winners. Six Breeders’ Cup winners. Three Hall of Fame horses. Naturally, an honor roll like that begs to ranked. Drysdale, however, refuses. “I don’t think you can rank your horses like that,” he said. “I’m always surprised when someone compares one horse to another over the years—they’re all so different, and they do different things.”


Eye on the Prize…
Is Winning Prize Drysdale’s next superstar, or simply a very talented Grade I animal? Time will tell, but Drysdale clearly thinks very highly of him. Last October, after Winning Prize won his U.S. debut at Del Mar in August facing optional claiming company, Drysdale put the horse on a plane across the country to face Horse of the Year Wise Dan in the GI Shadwell Turf Mile. It was a revealing vote of confidence from a typically cautious trainer. “But then it started raining, and raining, and it got quite sad,” Drysdale laughed. “The horses in the paddock looked sad, the people looked sad…”
Kentucky’s driving autumn rains forced the Turf Mile to the main track, where Silver Max (Badge of Silver) upset Wise Dan. Winning Prize never really figured and finished fourth, beaten five lengths.
Returned to California, Winning Prize again had his chances compromised by weather in the GII Citation S. at Betfair Hollywood Park Nov. 29. “It rained then, too, and I don’t think he handled the ground that well,” said Drysdale. Over a turf labeled ‘good,’ Winning Prize made all, but couldn’t hold off Silentio (Silent Name {Jpn}) and Summer Front (War Front), finishing third by 3/4 lengths.
But as the skies cleared, Winning Prize’s stock rose. In the one-mile GII Arcadia S. at Santa Anita Feb. 1, he showed a new dimension (in the States at least), coming from a stalking position to win by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:32 4/5. “[Co-owner] Jose Nelson had said the horse didn’t have to be on the lead, and in the Arcadia, he showed that he could take off the pace,” said Drysdale.
Winning Prize was back on the lead in the Kilroe, but the result was the same: a stylish win in 1:32 and change. When jockey Corey Nakatani hopped off after the Kilroe, he immediately began talking about Winning Prize’s Breeders’ Cup potential. Drysdale confirmed that Winning Prize would ultimately target the GI Breeders’ Cup Mile, to be held at Santa Anita once again in November. “We actually entertained thoughts of running in the Breeders’ Cup last year, but with these South American horses, you wanted to give them plenty of time,” said Drysdale.
Winning Prize now has eight wins from 13 starts. Three of his losses came on the main track (including two dirt starts in Argentina), with the other two coming on rain-softened ground. He’s undefeated on firm turf.


Excited About the Years to Come…
Horse training is a knowledge-based profession. Trainers, essentially, are paid for their minds and the instincts they’ve developed through experience. So while Neil Drysdale has hit what would be the retirement age in many other professions, he has no plans to hang up his tack any time soon. Besides, he quips, with a 7-year-old daughter, “We have to think about college tuition and all that.”
Asked if having a child at the age of 59 changed his perspective on anything, he said, “Do you have children yourself? It changes your perspective on everything… whether your like it or not, my assistant John O'Donoghue says.”
Drysdale currently has 25 horses in his barn, which is down from the 40 he has typically carried in the past. “Some of my longtime owners have, well, died,” he said in the typically dry fashion of the British. “Ideally, we’ll get back to around 40 or so.”
Despite his relatively small numbers, Drysdale still looks poised for a big 2014. In addition to Winning Prize, the older horses Lucayan, Kid Dreams and Topic have remained in training, and there are several promising European imports, he said. And while Drysdale, like fellow Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey on the East Coast, has the reputation of being an ‘older horse’ trainer, he said he still loves working with young horses.
“I liked the European imports, but I also like developing horses,” he said. “You get labeled with things because of how you’re doing at a certain time. You might get labeled a grass trainer or a filly trainer. It’s a little strange, because people say we don’t have 2-year-olds. But the 2-year-olds we’ve had have run and run well, and one year we had a 2-year-old champion [Tasso]. It’s just what you’ve got in the stable, and you have to adapt to it. But I do enjoy the yearling sales, and we bought a 2-year-old the other day at Barretts, a Congrats colt, for $65,000.”
The Barretts colt, consigned by McCarthy Bloodstock as Hip 91, breezed an eighth in :10 2/5 and was produced by a half to MGSW Private Vow (Broken Vow).
“He should be fun,” said Drysdale, adding, “We’re still very active. We’re looking forward to this year. And the next. And the year after.”
In the meantime, he and his horses are getting used to their new environs at Santa Anita. “Everyone knows the barns here will need changing very soon--the barns at Hollywood were newer--and the track’s more crowded,” he said. “It’s a one-mile track here, compared to nine furlongs at Hollywood, and the training track at Hollywood was away from the main track. But the horses are adapting fine, we’re adapting fine, and we’ll push forward and conquer [laughed].”
Indeed, when asked, after almost 50 years in the horse business, if there’s one victory that stands out to him, Drysdale smiles. “Yes. The next one.”

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