By Bill Finley
Bode Miller, the gold-medal winning Olympic ski racer, wants to be a horse trainer. Just not a conventional one.
With his skiing career all but over, Miller is already laying the foundation for his next vocation, training Thoroughbreds. Though only an owner at this point, he has already purchased his own barn at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, where he has a small string of horses trained by others. He said he is focused now on spending time with his family and will not take out his trainer’s license until his two young children are older, but when he does, he will go about it in a way that traditional horsemen will likely see as racing’s version of reinventing the wheel.
Why are Thoroughbreds, essentially, trained the same way they were 50 years ago and why is racing the only sport in which the athletes have not gotten dramatically faster over the years? Miller believes the answer is that horsemen are too tradition-bound, afraid to do anything dramatically different and that the athlete is not pushed nearly hard enough in their training. He’s not arrogant or saying he has all the answers. He is saying it’s time to borrow some of the methods he used to became a world-class skier and for someone to try to shatter the status quo.
Miller revealed his thoughts on modern training methods and his plans for his future in a recent podcast with the TDN. He knows when it comes to racing, he is still an outsider who has a lot to learn, but he sees that as a good thing.
“To some degree, it’s a disadvantage, my not having come up underneath some of these really knowledgeable, experienced trainers,” he said. “They have so much knowledge that has gotten passed down through the generations from mentor to pupil. But at the same time, in the training business there is a lot of insecurity, bad habits and misinterpretation of information and things like that that have also gotten passed along. I want to move the needle in terms of improving the athlete beyond what the normal training programs do and I also want to get the athletes prepared to tackle the competition they’re put in against in a more efficient and more effective way so they don’t get hurt as much. It’s a big advantage, to some degree, not having come out from underneath one of those experienced trainers because I don’t carry the same baggage they have accumulated over their careers. Some of it is very valuable, but some of it is throwaway.”
Miller is thinking not like a horse trainer, but an Olympic athlete. Because of course conditions, times in skiing from one year to another can be hard to compare, but there’s no doubt the athletes keep getting faster. The winning time for the Olympic downhill race, an event in which Miller has medaled, in 1948 was 2:55. In 2010, the year Miller earned a bronze medal, winner Didier Defago completed the course in 1:54.31. Miller understands why skiers, along with swimmers, track and field competitors and so many other Olympians have gotten so much faster over the years: in their sports, there is a constant effort to find better training methods. Not so in horse racing.
Miller’s good friend Bob Baffert may be the best trainer in the sport today, but he had Miller scratching his head when it came to some of the things he did with his horses.
“As much as I respect Bob and his accomplishments, which are just mind-boggling to me, I said to him, ‘Bob you realize you’re doing a lot less than you could be in terms of maximizing your athletes’ potential. If you were a coach we’d be having a different conversation right now, just as I did with coaches all throughout my athletic career.’ I realized right away that Bob is a tremendous horseman and has such a gift when it comes to his eye for horseflesh, which is second to none, but he doesn’t know that much about physiology or sports science or training programs. There came a time when I told Bob I want to try some of these things out and he tried to steer me away from it. He said you don’t realize how tough this sport is. I know it is, but I came through a tough sport, too.”
The one aspect of training a horse that Miller finds most puzzling is why they spend so little time actually training and so much time confined to their stalls.
“The reality is we absolutely do way, way too little with these animals,” he said. “Everyone will say Thoroughbreds are too fragile, but the reality is they take off-the-track Thoroughbreds and turn them into horses that are bomb proof. They can run all day, can jump fences going four miles and they don’t get hurt that often. The way we do it in the Thoroughbred world, would be like me taking an athlete like Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson and telling them they had to lay still in bed for 23 ½ hours a day. We’d get them out of bed and have them sprint at 80%, 100 yards once every seven to 10 days and then have a track meet once a month and say I’m going to have you run 400 yards or 800 yards at maximum speed. Watch what would happen to those athletes. They may have a couple of good performances in them but they would rupture their Achilles tendon, they would blow out a hamstring or a calf muscle. They would have chronic injures all the time and that’s exactly what we are facing in the Thoroughbred world. From a physiological standpoint it’s a no-brainer.”
It’s that philosophy that led him to buy the barn at Fair Hill as he believes anyone training at the racetrack is at a disadvantage in terms of the limits to what they can do with their horses.
“They are an animal designed to be in a different environment,” Miller said.
Miller isn’t saying that he will ever get a horse to run a mile and a quarter in 1:50. But he believes that if his methods can lead to even a minor improvement in the horse, then he will be successful.
“I want to show that I can move the needle a little bit,” he said. “We’re talking about small percentages here. A claiming horse might run a mile-and-a-sixteenth in 1:46. A very high-level stakes horse might run it in 1:42. That’s a small percentage, around 4%. If you start chipping away at those percentages, even by 1 or 2%, you should end up being successful in the long run. In human sports there have been huge improvements in times over the years. I believe there’s a way to do something similar in the equine world.
“They want the horse to be born, run around and then go out and race without any formal training and I think we’ve seen in human athletics that, by no stretch of the imagination, is that any way to get the highest level of performance out of the athlete. In case of my experience, I applied some sports science, some nutrition and frequency and intensity of training and saw first hand the kind of impact that can have on performance.”
Miller says he has the same goals all trainers have, to win the most important races there are, the GI Kentucky Derby, the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic. But another goal is to keep his horses racing much longer than the typical Thoroughbred.
“I don’t believe in the philosophy of racing horses until they are 3 ½ and then retiring them,” Miller said. “I obviously understand about the financial incentives to do that, but I think it’s bad for the sport. Still, I don’t blame anyone for doing it. But if you have a way where you can really condition a horse to be sound and you have a really solid physiological monitoring system where you can predict and really tell when chronic injuries are creeping up, I think it’s very possible to safely race a horse until they are 6, 7, 8, 9 years old with no increase in injury at all. I think the worst chance of injures are when they are really young; they are underdeveloped and there are a lot of issues that come along with that. My thought is I’ll be shooting for superstars all the time and hoping to train them through those 2 and 3-year old seasons, but not discarding them when they get older. I’ve also seen it a million times when a human athlete really comes into his or her own at 20 years old or even 25 years old. I think it’s exactly the same thing with horses. lf you tap into the right combination of factors, there should be plenty of horses that start to really figure things out when they get to be four or five.”
Based on the ages of his two children and his desire to wait until he’s an “empty nester” until he goes full tilt into training, Miller might not start his new career for 10 years or more. He’s also smart enough to know what he doesn’t know and understands he will have to hire and work with people who have a more traditional background in racing. But this is also someone brimming with confidence, is used to being successful and displayed during his skiing career that he is fearless. He’s going to come into racing and seriously rock the boat. And it might just work.