Are Super Trainers Good or Bad for the Sport?

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This is part II in a two-part series on “Super Trainers” dominating the game of racing. Click here to read part I.

Trainer Dan Peitz never had a particularly big stable, but he always seemed to get the most of what he had. He won the GI Test S. in 1996 with Capote Belle (Capote), one of six graded stakes she won during her career, and he won the GII Fair Grounds Oaks in 2001 with Real Cozzy (Cozzene). He wasn’t getting rich or on his way to the Hall of Fame, but he made a living, paid his bills and he loved what he was doing. In 2011, he made 130 starts, won 19 races and his stable earned $692,734.

Peitz now has just 16 horses and won eight races in 2017 with his stable earning $341,139. He last won a stakes race in 2015.

“It’s tough to make a living,” Petiz said. “I’m small now, a small trainer.”

Did Peitz lose his training skills? That’s not likely. Rather, he became something few owners want anymore–just another trainer. Like hundreds of others who fall somewhere in the middle of the training ranks, he cannot compete with the “Super Trainers,” the Chad Browns, Todd Pletchers, Bob Bafferts, Steve Asmussens, Mark Casses. They get all the top owners, which means they get all the top horses. There’s very little left over for someone like Peitz.

Peitz was hit particularly hard when the primary client he had relied on for most of his career, Robert and Lawana Low, who owned both Capote Belle and Real Cozzy, decided to make a change. They would still give Peitz some horses, but they wanted to get to the next level and figured the best trainer to take them there was Pletcher. The Lows paid $380,000 for Magnum Moon (Malibu Moon) at the 2016 Keeneland September sale and the horse went on to win the GII Rebel S. and the GI Arkansas Derby for Pletcher. They had never before given a top horse to anyone but Peitz.

Peitz is as good-natured as they come and realizes owners have become increasingly enamored with the training stars of the game. He watched the Rebel from Oaklawn’s Jockey Club with the Lows and rooted them on.

“I’ve been with them for something like 25 years, I’m still part of their team and I pull for them,” he said. “They told me they were going to spend some good money on yearlings and 2-year-olds and wanted to get to the Derby. They thought Todd was the best person to get them there.”

The trainer’s share of Magnum Moon’s wins in the two Oaklawn stakes was $114,000.

As for Peitz, he said, “I’m just going month to month trying to pay my bills.”

He also regularly got some horses from Shadwell Farm. He is getting fewer and fewer each year as they are focusing on Brown and Kiaran McLaughlin.

Can the sport afford to have the Dan Peitzes of the world go out of business? It cannot. There have to be middle-class trainers to fill the $12,500 claimers on a Thursday afternoon. Todd Pletcher just doesn’t run in those races.

That fact is one of the reasons many are alarmed by the growing power of the super trainers. Another criticism is that with so few trainers handing so many horses, it’s contributing to small fields. With the exception of stakes races, most tracks won’t let a trainer run more than two horses in a race. A super trainer might have five that fit the condition and three will have to sit the race out. If those three were with other, smaller barns, there would be three more horses in the race.

“There’s no question that super trainers are a problem,” said Tim Ritvo, the COO of the Stronach Group. “In California, 20% of the guys are winning 80% of the money. These are guys who are successful and have worked hard all their lives, so you don’t want to penalize them. America is all about free enterprise. But there needs to be more of a balance and if there’s not, we’re not going to have anyone left to run against these big guys.”

Chuck Simon is just the type of trainer a racing secretary relies on to fill middle and lower-level races. A former assistant to Allen Jerkens, he started 215 horses in 2004. In 2017, he made just 75 starts and won 10 races. He now has about 24 horses.

“I’m not looking for any sympathy, but it’s difficult,” he said. “I’m not just talking about myself. We talk. Trainers talk. Nobody wants to be known as the guy that is struggling or is broke.”

Simon said that many trainers are filling stalls by agreeing to train horses for free in return for a share of ownership. He says that’s no way to make a living.

“Empty stalls are the enemy,” he said. “You can’t make money with empty stalls. So a lot of people are willing to make deals. But these are mainly for failed horses.”

“These top trainers just do a very good job,” said Tom Bush, a New York regular who has about 25 horses. “They’re very organized and success begets success. And it’s snowballed. Most of the good horses are in just a few hands and that’s something that makes it difficult for the rest of us to compete. I will say this: I really enjoy it when I beat these guys.”

In order for trainers like Bush, Peitz and Simon to survive, they occasionally have to have a top horse come into their barn–one that can make enough money to make up for the ones who aren’t producing and earning. They’re just not getting them anymore.

There are many reasons field size and the number of races being run in the country are down, but many racing executives believe one factor is the super trainer. The theory is that with so many horses in the hands of so few trainers, horses get pushed into the background and aren’t given as many opportunities to run as they would have if they were in smaller barns.

“You have to question what the owners are thinking when they automatically go to these trainers,” NYRA Senior Vice President of Racing Martin Panza said in a March 16 interview in the TDN. “When you’re the tenth ‘one other than’ in that barn, you’re not going to run more than three or four times a year. You look at the larger trainers and that’s the case with most of these horses. That’s stupidity on the part of the owner. There are plenty of guys that can train and you can pick a smaller trainer, and when I say smaller that doesn’t mean he can’t train, it means he doesn’t have the same numbers. You give that horse to him and that horse might run eight or nine times a year instead of four.”

Not all owners prefer to go the super-trainer route. Though the Pletchers, Browns and Bafferts somehow seem to be able to communicate on a regular basis with their owners, with a smaller trainer, the owner is going to get much more attention and it’s likely that the horse will get plenty of hands-on care from the actual trainer. The super trainer who has divisions at numerous tracks is often relying on an assistant to do the day-to-day work.

Rodney Paden has owned horses for years, but only recently started to deal with higher-class horses. He sold his business and had the money to buy some expensive horses. He recently privately purchased a horse named Art Collection (Flat Out), who was trained by Chad Brown. He could have kept him with Brown, but instead sent him to Charles “Scooter” Dickey. At the 2017 Keeneland November Sale, he was advised by Dickey to buy One Go All Go (Fairbanks), who went for $62,000. The horse has since won the GII Elkhorn S. and finished third in the GI Man o’ War S.

“I’ve always known that Scooter knows what he’s doing,” Paden said. “He’s always been capable and in the early eighties he had some big-name horses. Scooter is very hands-on and he’s there every morning at four. Not only with his horses–he can tell you everything about every horse at the track. If you’re looking to claim something, he’s always out there clocking horses. He’s forgotten more about horse racing that I’ll ever know and that’s why I’m so enamored with him.

“There are a lot of good horsemen who don’t get enough horses to go big-time. Look at One Go All Go. He was a struggling 5-year-old when we bought him for $62,000 and look what Scooter has done with him. He’s made us $350,000 in six months. How can you argue with that kind of success? It’s nothing I did. It’s all on Scooter.”

Dickey knows first-hand what it’s like to lose a horse to a more prominent trainer. He won the 2011 GII Suburban H. and the 2011 GI Jockey Club Gold Cup with Flat Out (Flatter) only to have the horse taken away and given to Bill Mott after a disappointing run in the 2013 GI Donn H.

But the Rodney Padens of the world–an owner who will give a stakes horse to a small barn–are becoming more and more rare. Everyone wants results and the super trainers produce. Pletcher and the others will tell you that they get the most horse and the best horses because they are outperforming the competition.

“This is a results-oriented business,” Pletcher said. “It’s as simple as that. If you’re successful, you do well, you win races, that attracts more clients. Our program suits what the American owners want. We emphasize 2-year-old and 3-year-old racing and we’ve been fortune enough to be successful in some of the Triple Crown events and a lot of the prep races leading up to them. The one thing we’re proudest of is that we have developed a lot of top stallions for our clients.”

Yet, there is something to be said for how the super trainers have changed the game, and not for the better.

“How much can the game take?” asked Simon. “You see stakes races have short fields, and there’s five horses, and two are trained by one guy and two are trained by another and then there’s a third horse who is 50-1 who was hustled into the race. There is competition for those horses but they are in the same barns and they have no incentive to run five horses in the same race. If the horses were spread out among other trainers, it would make for much better racing. That’s not compelling racing. It’s not fun to watch.”

One solution would be to limit their stalls, to go back to an era when a trainer could only have 40 or so horses. That’s an obvious restriction of free enterprise and, for the most part, no one is for it.

“You can’t tell successful business people who are in this sport either as a business or a hobby what to do,” Brown said. “That’s not going to work. I deal with these people every day. You cannot restrict their free trade. You cannot pick up horses from one trainer and hand them to another guy.”

Brown is sympathetic to the trainers who do not have many horses and are struggling.

“I don’t want to drive anyone out of business,” he said.

Brown said he would be willing to pay what would amount to a higher tax than the smaller barns pay. For instance, he said, he’d have no problem paying a higher fee for stall rent and also suggested that the larger trainer be put into a higher tax bracket when it comes to workmen’s compensation costs.

At Santa Anita, Ritvo and his team have experimented with races meant to level the playing field. They have carded maiden special weight races restricted to homebreds and horses that cost less than $100,000 at the sales. They have written races for trainers who have 20 or fewer horses in their barns.

“We have to try to help these guys,” said Ritvo, a former trainer. “When you talk about day in and day out racing like we have at Gulfstream with 250-some dates, the cheaper races are actually the ones we make the most money on. The economic engine of this game is the guy who bets and they don’t want a five-horse field with a 1-9 shot. The smaller trainer is the backbone of the game and the reason we can have elongated meets. To do so, you need guys like me who came up through the food chain winning average races. The sport simply cannot afford to have these people go out of business.”

But the sport cannot tell WinStar Farm, Mike Repole, Juddmonte, Ahmed Zayat, Ken and Sarah Ramsey, Sol Kumin, Gary Barber, John Oxley or Winchell Thoroughbreds that they have to give a handful of their good horses to someone with five horses in their stable that wins with 8% of their starters.

There’s no easy fix. There may be no fix at all. Super trainers are ruling the sport.

“Is there an argument that the mom-and-pop store can provide a little extra attention to everyone who wants to come and buy tomatoes, or is it better to have a supermarket that can provide all the best stuff?” asks Pletcher. “I don’t know. I think it’s sort of the world we live in, and as long as it’s a successful format, you’re going to continue to see it.”

 

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