Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Trainer: Refuge of the fat jockey?

Seeing news that hall of fame jockey Gary Stevens is opening his own training stable prompted me to mull some of the former jocks who became conditioners.

It isn't always done to great success. Even Seabiscuit's jock, Red Pollard, gave it a try, but couldn't make do; so unsuccessful, apparently, that the period often goes unmentioned in his biographies.

The story of the ex-jock-turned-trainer is told to great, unintended, modern-day comedic success by the New York Times, July 1, 1900.

Under the old-school, four-deck head (noted because my journalism background rears its own head), the piece begins: "OLD JOCKEYS AS TRAINERS. One Occupation Open to Them When Too Heavy to Ride. GROW PLUMP AFTER WASTING. Nature's Revenge for the Men Who Defy Her Laws by Taking Off Weight While Racing."

Not chuckling yet? Now that the headline tomfoolery is finished, we'll continue: "The distinguishing quality of the ex-jockey who clings to the race track even after his riding days are over is a plumpness which, however, rarely is so pronounced as to justify description as fat. ... If the ex-jockey could prosper in a worldly way in proportion as he waxes stout, to be an ex-jockey would be an ideal condition. The prosparity (sic), however, rarely goes beyond comparative success in the new field as trainer."

No, I'm not altogether sure what the writer's point was, either. I guess the talk of gaining weight after "wasting" (aka, "reducing" or dangerous dieting) was a way of introducing a personal column on jocks who became good trainers. (This is not really a news story, though 100 years ago in papers there was little to define the difference.)

So, yeah, Gary Stevens is not a plump jockey turned trainer. The last time I saw him on a TV broadcast, he still looked fit to ride. And I think he'll be one of those jocks who can get the job done as a conditioner. Stevens always did seem to know more about horses than just how to boot 'em home in front when they had the talent to win.

He's also got some capable help in the form of his son, T.C. Stevens. The Blood-Horse reports that T.C. has worked for a couple of years at Ashford Stud, and prior to that punched the time clock as an assistant or hand for trainers in California and Florida. So he should know how to handle a horse's care and fitness.

Will he reach the level of success enjoyed by Johnny Hyland, described in that 109-year-old N.Y. Times article as "a rich man and ... conspicuous on the turf as one of the most successful of the ex-jockey trainers?" (Hyland, eventually a hall of famer, among many others trained 1904 champion Beldame, who to this day has a Grade 1 at Belmont named in her honor.)

Well, Stevens is already rich I do suppose, and that works in his favor as a trainer. There's no need for him to take lesser horses just to get by. He says he's content to "slowly build up the stable," and those are luxuries most trainers just starting out don't have.

Good luck to you, Gary, in your new endeavor. May you find much success as a trainer, but not let it go to your head -- or waistline.

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