By Katie Petrunyak
Last year, we conducted a popular Q and A series called 'Smaller But Still Super,' where we featured veteran trainers who have built a competitive racing stable with relatively small numbers (click here to view the archive). This year, we will highlight trainers who have already cut their teeth as novice trainers, but now have a few years of experience under their belt and are looking to make a name for themselves as they grow their stable. We'll talk about the challenges that come with hanging out your single, advice for trainers setting out on their own, how the incoming class of young trainers differs from previous generations and more.
Dan Blacker said he always knew that he wanted to be a trainer. His first job was with British jump racing champion trainer Nicky Henderson and he spent school holidays riding out in his native England and in France. But it wasn't until a trip to the U. S. during the Godolphin Flying Start program that he fell in love with the racetrack way of life.
As part of the Flying Start program, the horseman spent time learning from Richard Mandella and he returned to work for the Hall of Fame trainer in 2007.
After working under Mandella for two years, Blacker spent two years with Tom Albertrani on the East Coast. In 2011, he jumped at the opportunity to launch his own stable.
Since then, Blacker has made a name for himself within the training ranks in California. Last year he not only reached 100 career wins, but he also celebrated his best season yet with 16 wins on the year and over $880,000 in earnings.
Blacker's name has long been associated with his leading earner Hit the Road (Medaglia d'Oro). After going through the ring unsold during Book 1 of the 2018 Keeneland September Sale, Hit the Road was picked out by Blacker and associate Craig (Boomer) Rounsefell for $160,000. Hit the Road took Blacker to his first Breeders' Cup at two and then gave his conditioner his first Grade I victory as a 3-year-old in the 2021 Frank E. Kilroe Mile S.
How did you ultimately take the plunge in going out on your own?
Jamie Lloyd, a bloodstock agent in England now, was training here in California and he was going back to England. He asked me if I wanted to start up, but I wasn't sure if I was ready financially. But Jamie got me a few owners and I started with three horses.
I had met Gary Stevens when I was working in France for Jonathan Pease. When I was starting out, Gary had just finished training. I asked if I could borrow some equipment. He told me to go to this container in Sierra Madra and take whatever I needed. I opened it up and grabbed two saddles, some webbings, all the stuff I needed, and took it back to Hollywood Park. I went and got my first three horses from Jamie and then found two grooms and asked if they wanted to work for me. I didn't have a whole lot of money, but thankfully I had some friends who helped me get going.
We've built it up from there and now 10 years later, we have 30 horses.
What was the biggest challenge in those first few years as you were getting started?
The first major challenge is going from an assistant to a head trainer. As an assistant, you always have an idea of how you want to do things when you're the boss. You take a piece of the routine from everyone you work for and then formulate your own routine that's unique to you. So you have this idea in your head, but then when you do take the plunge, it's a massive difference when you don't have that person to ask what to do. You're the person that has to make the decisions for everything and ultimately if something doesn't work out, you're the one that has to answer to it with the owners. You never really deal with owners when you're an assistant, but when you go out on your own, all of a sudden you have all this responsibility. There are a lot of things you don't think about when you're an assistant that you now have to do on a day-to-day basis.
You have to learn to wear many hats. You have to be a good communicator, a good horseman and you have to be good with finances. I started my business having no real background in running a business and I had to learn as I went. I opened a QuickBooks program and started learning.
Is there anything the industry as a whole should do to make it easier for trainers starting out?
That's what is really unique about America. It's one of the best places for young trainers to start without a huge amount of financial backing. Back home in England, it's so hard to get going as a trainer. You need a lot of financial backing because you need your own private yard. Here you can have three horses and three stalls and away you go.
In general, I think young people in America are given opportunities much more readily, especially compared to where I'm from back home in England. I think Americans in general are much more open to giving young people a chance if you prove that you work hard and you're passionate about what you do. You don't need a well-known last name and it doesn't matter what you look like. If you have a bit of success, people will give you a chance.
I think the finances are the hardest point. Running a business in any industry takes a lot of planning. I was really winging it in the beginning and it would have been nice to have some sort of guidance in terms of setting up a viable business.
What do you think makes your stable or your training style unique?
We really focus on individual routines for each horse when it comes to training and feed.
We put a lot of emphasis on communication. We send out weekly updates. We film every workout and send workout reports. Most of my owners are not local, so it's great for them to be able to see the works. I think that's one of the most important things. It's why we're here. If I can get the owners more involved with the process of getting a horse ready for a race, I think I'm doing my job. The more you can get them involved, I think the more they enjoy it and the more likely they are to be longtime owners.
I like to think that in terms of training horses, I can train any type of horse. I know I have a British accent but ironically, my statistics are actually a little bit better on the dirt just because we've had a run of decent dirt horses lately. I worked for Richard Mandella and he has won Grade I races on every distance on every surface. I hope that one day I can get close to his kind of record.
What was the main takeaway from your time working for Richard Mandella?
There are so many different things I learned from him that I still think about today. He's the best horseman I've ever been around.
The main thing would be attention to detail and really focusing on each horse. Training a horse is not just about what they're doing on the track. It's their whole life–how they behave in the barn, how they behave in the paddock, how they're eating. The whole package of a horse's life can impact the outcome of a race.
As assistants for Mandella, we spent our entire time in the barn watching how they were behaving. It was about all the little things that I don't think a lot of people think about. Winning and losing is a matter of inches sometimes, so for Mandella it was about trying to tweak these horses and their routines to gain every kind of advantage.
What is something that this incoming generation of trainers does better or different than previous generations?
The obvious one is communication. There is a lot more emphasis on communication these days.
In terms of training, I think training horses has evolved everywhere around the world. There is a lot of talk about how horses race less often than they used to. I think it's a combination of many different things at play. Maybe the breed has been bred over generations to run faster and possibly the breed might have become tougher to keep sound. But more likely, with statistics and numbers being analyzed more these days, trainers have been able to see that horses run better with more time between races. When you're spacing out races more, horses tend to run bigger and have better performances. If you're running against a trainer that spaces his races out, you're going to be at a disadvantage.
That's not always the case. You can get a horse that runs well every two weeks. But statistically on the whole, I think that trainers have learned over the years that horses run a much bigger race when the races are more spread out. It's difficult to compete with the guys that do that unless you're doing the same thing, so I think it's just the way that training styles have developed over the years.
Could you tell us a bit about the Keeneland Files you did with Boomer Bloodstock? Will we see those again this year?
I really owe all of that to Vicky Leonard and Boomer [Craig Rounsefell]. They came up with the idea and I was just along for the ride. I was a little skeptical at first as I'm not one to jump in front of the camera. But once we got going, I realized that what they were trying to achieve was great and it was crazy how much positive feedback we got from it. So many people were coming up and saying how much they loved the videos. If it can shed some light on the process that we go through with buying horses, then I think we're doing our job. Boomer really does his homework leading up to it and in the videos you can see how much work he puts in. I had some calls afterwards and people were interested in coming in, so I think we definitely got some new partners from it.
Who is your favorite horse that you've trained?
That's a pretty easy one–Hit the Road (More Than Ready).
He had some minor injuries after the Pegasus last year so we gave him some time off. He has come back and was a bit disappointing, but after his last race a splint bone became inflamed so we've been going easy with him recently. This will be his last year of training. Hopefully we will have him back to the races before Del Mar this summer.
I genuinely believe he deserves a shot as a stallion. He has a great pedigree, he was precocious and he has always had a great mind. As a trainer, those are the kind of horses I want to train. He had a spotty racing career, but that was mostly due to the pandemic. He really has everything that I would hope to have in a racehorse. He's so competitive and he's won a stakes race at two, three and four. I hope he gets a chance to be a stallion because has all the attributes you look for in a racehorse.
Is there an up-and-coming horse in your barn that we should know about?
A horse called Arrowthegreat (Arrogate). He ran second in a straight maiden last summer at Del Mar. After a little issue we ran him back and he was a bit disappointing here last month, but was really sick after the race. He's a really beautiful horse and I have high hopes for him for the second half of the year. He'll be getting back on the work tab next week.
We have some exciting 2-year-olds arriving soon, including one by Good Magic. We've heard good reports about him from Ocala.
If you aren't at the racetrack, what can you be found doing?
I have three daughters. I spend a lot of time with them. They're all active in softball and soccer.
What is your favorite restaurant to go to after celebrating a win?
My wife [TVG host Christina Blacker] and I like to go out and try new places. There's a good one in Pasadena, a new Italian place called Piccolo. But all you Breeders' Cup people, don't be taking up my reservations.