By Chris McGrath
After 40 years, and standing seventh in the all-time Churchill Downs win list, it looks as though Greg Foley might just be getting the hang of this training game. Heading into the fall, he has already won more prizemoney than in any campaign since starting out in 1981: $2,335,202 and counting, from 33 winners at 19%. And the bases are loaded, too.
For instance, the pair that condensed Foley's maturing momentum in finally becoming his first and then immediately his second Derby starters, Major Fed (Ghostzapper) and O Besos (Orb), have both been restored to training after summer lay-ups. And then there's Sconsin (Include), whose hometown stakes success last Saturday not only had the winner's circle overflowing with family and friends but arguably confirmed her the most feasible pursuer of champion Gamine (Into Mischief) in the GI Filly and Mare Sprint at the Breeders' Cup.
“We've had a good run the last couple of years, and this year's been especially good,” Foley acknowledges. “But you know, I've just been blessed with some nice horses. Like anybody else, the horses will take you there if you can get them–and we've got a pretty good bunch right now. We're just trying to get a little better horse now, and keep this thing rolling along.”
Sure enough, Foley has been prospecting the second week of the September Sale with a diligence, and an eye, not so common among trainers nowadays. For this is an all-round horseman raised in the old school by his late father Dravo, himself a familiar figure on the Kentucky circuit for five decades as trainer of 1,123 winners. Foley has long since surpassed that tally, closing on 1,500, while sister Vickie excels them both (for now, at any rate) in having trained a Grade I winner, Hog Creek Hustle (Overanalyze) in the Woody Stephens S. a couple of years ago. Now Foley is grateful that sons Travis and Alex have taken the racetrack dynasty into a third generation, despite having demonstrated an eligibility for a different walk of life with an MBA and law degree, respectively.
This, in fact, is a barn so steeped in horse lore that the man who sets the standards, and the tone, represents perhaps the most venerable culture–and perhaps the most vulnerable–in the training business today: the Kentucky “hardboot.” Vulnerable, of course, only for the very reason such horsemen are so venerable, namely an insistence on the kind of hands-on care that inevitably leaves them overshadowed by megabrand trainers with a cavalry of hundreds spread across time zones.
But nobody should misapprehend “hardboot” as implying anything stony or stubborn, when it more often yields the kind of classy demeanor, genial and modest, typified by Foley's refusal to disparage more industrial competition.
“I take my hat off to those guys,” he says courteously. “I don't know how they do it. They do a hell of a job. Of course, it's tough when you're running places like Churchill Downs, the best of the best are going to show up, and the big outfits all have young horses coming through all the time. So if you just got a handful, you've got to step up to run with them, that's for sure. But that's just the way it is. We're running with 40 to 45 head of horse right now. And I like that range: I'm all in one spot, taking care of them every day.
“And that can be kind our selling point, too. I pride myself on my care of the horses. They look as well as anybody's, I think, when you walk them over. And that came straight from my father. He was an excellent horseman, with an excellent eye. He raised some very good ones, too, he had a farm, and I was lucky enough at 18, 20 years old, that he trusted me enough to go off to the racetrack with them.”
So while racing is notoriously a quantity game, Foley is happy to concentrate on maximizing quality so far as possible; and more than happy that he has the right team to do so, with Travis as assistant trainer and the backing of longstanding patrons like Lloyd Madison Farms, the Wisconsin ownership group behind Sconsin.
Competition in the sales ring, mind you, is no less exacting than on the racetrack. But Foley, when talking to TDN, was cheered by having just landed a $100,000 brother (Hip 2034) to GIII Sunland Derby winner Cutting Humor (First Samurai) from the Claiborne consignment.
“Yeah, I finally got to buy a horse!” he says. “It's been brutal. I haven't seen that many people there in a lot of years. I guess people are just happy to be out again, and to have some kind of normalcy. But there's a lot of money out there, that's easy to see, and they're spending it, too. We're kind of middle-of-the-road buyers, we don't have the big money, and that was the first one I really had a chance to buy. Nice colt, the mare has already had some good ones, and I'm happy we got him.”
It was deep in the same sale back in 2008 that Foley found a Tiznow filly for $90,000. Named Sconnie, she broke her maiden second time out by seven lengths but disappeared after her next start.
“She was a beautiful filly, gorgeous,” Foley remembers. “And she could run, too. We had some bad luck with her. After her work one morning, in Churchill, she almost got to staggering walking off and scared me pretty good. We sent her off to the clinic and they found this heart defect, so we retired her right after that.”
Sconnie joined the small string of Lloyd Madison broodmares boarding on Alex Rankin's Upson Downs Farm, near the Foley family home in Oldham County. Her third foal is Sconsin, who really announced herself with an explosive allowance score at Churchill last summer, and won the GII Eight Belles S. before just missing the podium behind Gamine at the Breeders' Cup. She has since become plenty familiar with the rear end of the champion, but wins in the GIII Winning Colors S. and then in the Open Mind S. last weekend suggest that she might yet close the gap if ever granted an adequate pace.
“You'd be pretty hard pressed to find a prettier filly than Sconsin,” Foley remarks. “And I think she's in the top three fillies in the country, sprinting. I know we ran fourth at Saratoga [GI Ballerina H.], but that was in a paceless race against Gamine: they went :23, :45, and I'm eight lengths back off it. And on a speed-favoring track she was one of few horses that made up any ground that day. If you look at her races, it's when they go :21-and-change, that's when she wins. Maybe we're crazy, taking on Gamine in her hometown, she's an unbelievable filly, but let's hope somebody might go with her early. Like the other night, it was a short field but with two speed fillies. That made it good both for us and [runner-up] Bell's the One (Majesticperfection). We've had our little rivalry going on, but we got her this time.”
Bell's the One, of course, represents another small barn supervised by a veteran horseman bearing a surname greatly respected by the old school. Foley is full of praise for the way Neil Pessin has kept his star thriving, and enjoys their divisional rivalry behind Baffert's monster, who cost $1.8 million at auction.
It was a shame that Pessin was denied the usual carnival atmosphere when Bell's the One won a Grade I on the Derby undercard last September, and it was much the same for Foley–both in winning the Eight Belles the previous day, and then in finally realizing every Kentucky horseman's dream by making the walk over from the backside with a Derby runner.
The participation of Major Fed, another Lloyd Madison homebred, brought full circle a friendship with patrons (Fred Schwartz, Jim Bakke and Tim Sweeney) Foley had first encountered through their mutual friend Rob Lloyd, who would host his Wisconsin buddies at the Derby every year.
“They went from never having owned a horse to becoming my main clients,” says Foley. “First-class people. They've been a dream to train for. Obviously [the September Derby, behind closed doors] was much different from other years, but I was thrilled to be in the race and we had a good time. Major Fed got pinballed around early, and got very keen. He needed to sit and finish, but he was only a length or so off the lead coming to the first bend and I knew then we were in big trouble.”
Major Fed faded to tenth but a stylish allowance win on his return in June suggested that he will reward his team's patience after another absence since. Foley is aiming him at an allowance race on Oct. 1.
Having waited so long to renew the Foley clan's Derby history–Taylor's Special (Hawkin's Special), bred by his father, didn't get home in 1984 after winning the GI Blue Grass S.–the barn wasted no time in finding a colt to sample a proper Derby day in O Besos, who outran his odds for an outstanding fifth in May. And certainly his Fair Grounds form with Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow), Midnight Bourbon (Tiznow) and Mandaloun (Into Mischief) looks none the worse for the rest he was given after finishing second in the GIII Matt Winn S. on his only subsequent start.
“O Besos actually just came back into the barn a couple of days ago,” Foley reports. “He looks great, and we're looking forward to later on this fall and early next year with him. He's run right up there with all those good horses that are still going now. In the Derby, when he came there saving ground on the inside, he made my hair stand up for a second, I thought we maybe had a good shot of winning. He was one of the few that made up any ground that day, and that was after being a little keen out of the gate which I think took away a little bit from his kick. He's filled out and grown up, from the little time off, and we're excited about having a big year with him [at four].”
So after all those years of incremental toil, it really does feel as though this admirable horseman is breaking into the next level. No doubt he has been helped by the next generation, with Travis excelling in client relations and recruitment. Foley admits that his son initially came aboard “just to give me a hand for a little while” while pondering career options, only to discover an inherited flair for the horse. Things played out similarly with Alex, who also helps out when his work for Steve Asmussen permits.
“I didn't keep them away but I did think they would wind up being lawyers or in business,” Foley says. “But anyway they found their way back over here and I'm happy they did. I grew up with it, and Vickie the same, as we were learning to walk. Years back, that's where trainers came from: it just ran in the family. So I guess it must be in the blood a little bit, they've taken to it so well.”
The boys' generation, of course, nowadays features among the opposition as well. But Foley, again, politely resists the invitation to agree that expensive horses, sent to younger trainers, will set them new puzzles that he has solved hundreds of times before.
“I would think experience would come in very handy,” Foley concedes with a chuckle. “But I can't knock anybody that comes up with good horses. You have to earn your way up. The horse is the whole thing. If you don't have a horse that can run, it doesn't matter who has them. It's just like if you're a football coach, basketball coach: you've got to have players to win ball games.”
Be that as it may, it's plainer than ever that Foley will reliably draw out the potential of whatever stock enters his seasoned hands.
“It took me a while to get to the Derby, but one thing about it, you want to do it again,” he says. “Sure enough, I was lucky enough to come back this year, and I hope it can become a habit.”