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Trainers, My Favorite Handicapping Angle
D. Wayne Lukas at Oaklawn Park (Credit: Coady Photography)

Trainers, My Favorite Handicapping Angle

When I first dove into the intricacies of horse racing, I learned to admire the trainers, people whom owners trust to take care of expensive horses. Other than the horses themselves, the trainers quickly became the most important part of my handicapping.

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Remember what I wrote about last week, my first experience at the track, and how I picked the winner of the very first race? I still hold my own just as well, but I’ve gotten better about how I do it.

Now, the first thing that I look at in my program is the trainer. The more often a trainer wins, the better quality of horses the trainer’s likely to be sent. I figure the people who’ve spent a lot of money on a horse will send it to a trainer who wins more often than the others.

My favorite ones to follow were the trainers at Oaklawn Park. I kept a detailed notebook of all trainers and the horses under their care, keeping notes on strengths or weaknesses: 

  • Good with maidens?
  • Only win with claimers?
  • Could win a stakes?
  • Could claim and win with a horse that had very little success before?
  • Could only win at “lesser” tracks?

It didn’t take me long to realize who was the best and who wasn’t.

Steve Asmussen celebrating his 500th win at Oaklawn in 2017 (Credit: Coady Photography)

Some quick background: I’ve coached high school football and basketball for many years, but I never worshipped the big-name college coaches because they’re at major universities that recruit only the best players. Sure, they probably also know what they’re doing, but having the best players makes an average coach look great, so they should win at those schools.

The same is true with horse trainers. They can only be as good as the animals they train. You can be the best damn horseman in the world, but you ain’t winning the Kentucky Derby with a mule. 

Take Bob Baffert, for example. I’d be a fool to say that he’s just an average trainer – he’s outstanding at what he does – but we shouldn’t forget that he also has the best stable thanks to owners with the sport’s deepest pockets. To be the best, it takes a barn full of studs, and he’s got them.

There are many outstanding trainers who work 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, trying to condition a $5,000 animal across the finish line first for a $10,000 purse. They work hard (I’m willing to bet a lot harder than the big-name trainers), receive little to no recognition, and yet they’re the backbone of horse racing.

At just about any track around the country, the daily cards are filled by trainers who work in obscurity on horses no one will ever remember. These are the guys and gals whom I admire the most.

It’s got to get old stepping in horse crap day after day after day, dealing with owners who think their $10,000 claimers should be in the Arkansas Derby, and trying to convince the best jockeys to ride for them and not someone else.

There are no holidays; horses don’t know that it’s Christmas or Thanksgiving or the 4th of July. They just know when it’s time to eat and when they’re supposed to get out of the stall for exercise.

Assistant trainer Andie Biancone helps bathe a horse after exercising him (Credit: Coady Photography)

Trainers are almost never home. Most are on a “circuit,” spending the year at 3-4 tracks scattered throughout the country.

For example, an Oaklawn trainer is only in Arkansas from January-May, then likely goes to Iowa, Texas, or Kentucky from May-August, and then heads to Oklahoma, Texas, or California from September to December. Then they start all over again after Christmas. It has to be monotonous, especially during a cold streak.

I follow several trainers who win at virtually every track they send a runner. Guys like Tim Martin, Kelly Von Hemel, Randy Morse, Ron Moquett, and Jon Arnett. Gals like Lynn Chleborad and Ingrid Mason. 

These people have been around for many years and have certainly paid their dues. When they get horses of higher quality, they win just as consistently as the big boys do. Most will never train a million-dollar winner, but they treat the horses under their care like they are.

The Von Hemel family actually contains three Hall of Famers. Don Von Hemel is in the Nebraska Hall of Fame, son Donnie is in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and son Kelly is in the Iowa Hall of Fame. Idon’t care what level you’re competing at, being in any Hall of Fame whatsoever is quite the accomplishment. These three, and the many other under appreciated trainers, are the lifeblood of the sport.

Donnie Von Hemel with country music star and racehorse owner Toby Keith (Credit: Coady Photography)

I’ve followed Steve Asmussen since he trained the great Curlin. He’s another great horseman who wins everywhere he runs (which is damn near every track in the country), but here’s what I love about him: he claims tons of $5,000 horses himself and continues to run them in low-level spots. How many big-time trainers do that? The importance of the race and the size of the purse don’t matter; Asmussen just wants to compete.

Of course, I saved the very best for last. That’s D. Wayne Lukas, a guy who’s been at the sport’s highest level but still shows up at 5:00 every morning. The only difference now is that instead of a stable filled with blue chip prospects, he has the same middling horses as everyone else. Yet despite his shrunken talent pool, he continues to compete. I admire him for his fight, his will, and most of all, his work ethic.

I had the pleasure of conversing with him around the Oaklawn paddock one Sunday afternoon. He could have easily blown me off because I’m sure whatever I asked him was crazy, but he was as gracious and patient as you could imagine. He was the first trainer the Racing Dudes followed when they started the company. He’s a true legend.

Studying trainers is just one of the many facets of handicapping horse racing, but that’s the beauty of it all.

Have fun, good luck, and I’ll see you next week.

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