In at the deep end - Mike Back, the trainer and mechanic
By Frances Karon
Fair Meadows racetrack in Tulsa, Oklahoma is sheltered under the shade of the city’s imposing skyscrapers, yet once there the eye is riveted by the busy jumble of pick-up trucks and horse trailers, cowboy hats and shiny belt buckles. The stabling area is well stocked for the mixed racing meet. Walk down the barn and pick a nose to scratch from among the heads stretched over the doors of their cedar chip-bedded stalls: Quarter Horse, Paint, Appaloosa or Thoroughbred.
One of the truck-and-trailer rigs belongs to 37-year-old Mike Back, who has hauled his filly Hard Bargain to Fair Meadows from his home in Adair – an hour away – for a half-mile workout, once around the 4-furlong “bullring” track. This is his first of two treks to the venue today for what will be a total of four hours on the road. Later, he will run Irishrunaway in the 3rd and Bagadiamonds in the 9th races on the 12-race twilight card. Back greets his rider and leans against the rail to watch as Hard Bargain skips over the red dirt surface. “He didn’t let her roll,” says Back. “Having a big, tight hold of her made her start throwing her head around a little bit, wanting to buck. I was wanting to see her set down and work. She was just doing a lot of jacking around.” He meets them at the gap, and when they get to the vacant stall he’s found for her in the barn he pays the rider, lets Hard Bargain draw some water from a bucket he has brought from home and hoses her down. Behind the barn, he surveys the eight four-horse Equicisers, chooses one and snaps the lead onto her halter. All of the walkers have two or three unsupervised horses on them already. On one, a gray Quarter Horse has stopped flat, refusing to yield to the tug on his head. He has that unmistakably ornery look in his eye, and you feel sorry for the bay attached to another arm of the mechanized hotwalker; there will be no cooling out for him this morning. Occasionally a passer-by will scoot the gray horse along, but inevitably he will stop again as soon as he’s left on his own. In a half-hour he completes three circles. On the other side of the enclosed area, Hard Bargain goes quietly, rhythmically placing her hooves on the worn path of the small circle. When her breathing has regulated and her coat has dried, Back unhooks her, loads her on the trailer and begins his long journey home.
Training horses is Back’s second career. His day job, the one that pays the bills, is as a mechanic for American Airlines, where he has worked for 18 years. “I couldn’t afford it without my job,” he says. He has taken a vacation day to shuttle horses to and from Fair Meadows today but doesn’t seem to mind. “I get excited at these races. It’s my Kentucky Derby.” He gets philosophical for a moment. “Otherwise, if you can’t do something that drives you, why go through life?”
Returning to Adair, Back turns Hard Bargain out into a pen. Except for the ones running later, his horses are lazily sunning outside. The set-up on his 160-acre farm is simple. Where possible, he has used whatever was on hand to save money, and inside his barn many of the walls are made up of sturdy wooden boards with colorful letters stenciled on them: “Mike Back for School Board.” (He was successfully elected.) There is a breeze billowing through the aisle and fans whirring over the stall doors to cut through the Oklahoma humidity. Three of the farm’s horses are in training; one is a pregnant broodmare he’s keeping for a friend; and a field towards the rear of the property houses one gelding who was badly injured during a race last month – a horse ran up on his hind tendons – and a few ex-racehorses that didn’t make the grade. “It’s a business and if one can’t run that’s fine but I won’t ship them off to the killers. I’ll find a home for them. I may have to keep them a year.” All the horses are happy and well-tended: this is not a bad place to be a horse. Training is done in the round pen, 15 minutes a day. “When you get one [fit enough] all you’ve got to do is just stand there and they’ll go 15 minutes strong. You’ll know when they’re ready for a work or for a race.” He smiles, telling a joke on himself. “I have the poor man’s Equiciser. I’m the motor in the middle. Except I can only do one at a time!” After their workout, each will be handwalked for 10 minutes before being set loose to play in the paddock.
By major racetrack standards, Back’s method is unorthodox but he is not alone in training this way: round pens have begun to appear at various racetracks. At Lone Star, he says, they “charge ten bucks to get in it, and it’s full every day. There’s a waiting list. Some people, when I tell them [how I train], they kind of frown and say that it’s hard on their knees because they’re always turning. Well it’s hard on their knees, too, when you put a 140-pound exercise rider up. Danged if you do, danged if you don’t. It works for me, and I’ve got the tracks close enough that I can take them there and blow them out.”
Fed by slots at local Cherokee and Choctaw owned casinos, prize money in the state is “almost double this year.” Tonight’s Thoroughbred portion of the racecard is capped by a $14,000 maiden special weight. “Oklahoma is the perfect place. Pretty good purses. Run year round, from February to December. The purses are getting better every year. Makes the competition harder, so you’ve got to have a better horse.” In Oklahoma alone, there are three racetracks within a two-hour drive of Back’s farm, though he will go as far as he needs to. “If I can win a race I’ll go across the country, if I could win a race and it was worth it. I’ll drive across the country for a minute and a half of racing! It’s ten hours to Fonner in Grand Island, Nebraska; that’s a long drive and there’s not much to see across the canvas, long and boring, but the people are great. Drove to Retama down in San Antonio a couple years ago, got there in 11 hours and they cancelled the races because of rain. That was a nice long drive back home!”
Back was introduced to racing when his father bought a racehorse for $500 in 1990. The horse won three races for them and Back had a first taste of what he would grow to love, admitting that horseracing “is just a very addicting sport.” Still, he didn’t get more involved until six or seven years ago. He had bred a few foals out of a mare and was having trouble finding a trainer. “I put an ad in the Tulsa paper, in the horse classifieds. And this guy called me, he worked the railroad and trained horses. He lived in Arch City, Kansas, so I drove up there one weekend, took the horse up and met him.” In a twist of irony, airplane and train joined together in their passion for the original mode of transport: the horse.
That railroad engineer, George Blatchford, trained for Back before encouraging him to apply for a trainer’s license. Blatchford had by then retired from the railroad and moved farther away to Oklahoma City, and while continuing to train horses off his farm was not always able to saddle Back’s starters, many of whom were now trained by Back in all but name. “George has been just like a dad to me. He told me I could do it myself, that I could do what he’s doing and not pay somebody $40 or $50 a day. And he was right.” When Back became a licensed trainer in October, 2005, he won his very first race, with Dr T’s Miracle. “Should have quit,” he says, full of logic but short on sincerity. “I’d have been ahead. I should have said, ‘hey, I’m 100%, what more could you want?’”
In the nearly two years since his maiden victory, breaking into the training ranks has proved a challenge. “A lot of your trainers at the track don’t give up much information. They think it’s a big secret. I kind of have to learn on the fly, you know?” But Blatchford steps in to give a hand or a push in the right direction whenever possible. “He really is a big help,” says Back. “Why do I like him?” asks Blatchford. “Well, because I know he enjoys the horseracing. I mean, it’s nice to make money with them but he does it as a sport. He does good and he tries hard. He’s always willing to learn. We’re so helpful to each other. He goes out of his way to help me and I go out of my way to help him. He’s just a great person to work with. He doesn’t have as good horses as I’ve got. You’ve got to have the horses. We’re at the bottom of the pole here, and we’re doing it because we enjoy it. Most people, it’s a business to them.”
Turning into Fair Meadows for the second time that Friday, Back heads for the two stalls that Blatchford has saved across the shedrow from his own pair of runners. As the sun sets over Tulsa, Irishrunaway settles into his stall like the veteran he is – this will be his 40th lifetime start, fourth for Back – but Bagadiamonds gets riled up. The upper half of the stalls have bars on three sides like a cage to give the horses plenty of socialization, and the sorrel Quarter Horse gelding next to her is acting coltish. Blatchford immediately pulls out one of his laid-back geldings and switches stalls with Back’s filly. The swap has helped; the filly, while still on her toes, quiets down, if only a little. Blatchford’s horse ignores the hysterics of the gelding beside him.
Blatchford’s presence at Tulsa tonight was a lucky break for Back. In Oklahoma, no one is allowed in the paddock without a license, so finding help is a chore. “You got a license?” he asks while we’re in his truck. “It’s like that, I just have to ask. If one of my buddies like George isn’t here I have to find somebody and pay them, especially if the races are back-to-back. It’s almost a nightmare, but I make it work. Once my oldest son, Taylor, turned 16 we got him a license, and that’s been a big help. He always goes with me and helps me anyway but until this year he couldn’t go in the paddock. I just kind of make do with whoever I can find.” Sometimes, he has to make do without. “A lot of times I’ll saddle them by myself just because I don’t have any help. It’s not real easy but you have to do it. I can’t do that with all of them.”
Over the course of the day it has dawned on me that when Back does his taxes there is not enough space on the “occupation” line: airplane mechanic/owner/trainer/psychologist/groom/hotwalker/van driver. It is easy to see why, for every Mike Back, there are countless people who can’t make it work. “It’s tough,” he says. “It’s a tough thing to break into, for a little person. And the politics of the track, they’ll just kill you!”
Once when Blatchford was listed as the trainer they had a horse leading the race into the last turn. “He was a dead winner,” says Blatchford – until the jockey pulled him up. Unsaddling, the rider told them the horse couldn’t breathe and Back couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I said, ‘there’s nothing wrong with that horse.’ I went to the stewards – I was so mad – the next morning I went back over there and said, ‘What do you want this horse to work?’ He said to work him 3/8’s and I said, ‘I’m going to work him a half.’ And he had a bullet work. Brought him back two weeks later and won a race with him. But if it hadn’t been for George pulling some strings I’d have never gotten anybody to ride him.”
Another of Back’s charges got a DNF not long ago. “Why? Well come to find out later the jockey had gotten thrown that morning, his back was hurting. I didn’t know that. The steward had had four complaints that day. The horse was going to run in the money. Instead, it put me on the vet’s list. I had to go work the horse, I had to take the horse in front of the vet, for nothing wrong with him. I can not afford for that to happen. So now I have a horse that’s got a DNF, and I’ve got to find somebody to ride him. What are they going to think? They’re going to think there’s something wrong with this horse.” With effort, he convinced a jock agent his horse was sound, the jockey took the mount and rode him to two consecutive third-place finishes. Back felt vindicated but the sting of what he might have lost remains. “It’s out of your hands once you put them on a horse. They could be costing me a race that I need to keep going through next week. That’s the whole killer, is they don’t realize how much I have riding on every race. It’s not a life-or-death deal but it’s a trying-to-get-by-to-next-week deal. Next week’s $200 feed bill and next week’s $150 this-and-that. It all quickly adds up.”
Back searches for new horses regularly. “I’m just looking for the next good horse that I could win a race with.” When studying claimers, he keys in on entries from “the bigger trainers, a horse that they’ve dropped to the bottom, that’s not working in their program,” but who’ve shown a little bit of ability in the past. “It’s so hard when you claim one. That could make or break you right there. You’ve got to be willing to lose your money. It’s an investment for the long term. I look for a horse that’s sour from the track, take one that’s not happy and just let him be a horse.” He singles out the gray Irishrunaway, who came to him through a trainer friend in Louisiana. “When I got him, I gave him some feed, a little TLC, a little time out, just to make him happy. He’d done absolutely nothing in his life. But now he’ll try, he’ll give it everything he’s got. I’ve run a second and a third with him in three outs.” His fondness for the horse – for all his horses – and for using his good instincts to learn what makes each one tick is plain to see.
He found Hard Bargain, a winner of three races for her previous owner, on HandRide.com, a website he visits frequently. “I called a guy and swung a deal with him. It was the only horse he had. She’d won a bit of money and won races last year but he had a new baby and he just couldn’t afford it anymore. And I said, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean!’” The married father of four (with a very supportive wife) drove to Henderson, Kentucky, looked the filly over and bought her. Back has pursued the online angle aggressively, e-mailing the representatives for many of the racehorses listed for sale, offering to train them unless he spots an obvious red flag indicating that there’s something wrong with their horses. “I’ll just shoot them an e-mail and they’ll either say yes or no. Most of them write back saying ‘you’re too far’ or ‘we’ll see what happens if we don’t get him sold.’ My ultimate goal is to be hooked up with somebody that wants to send horses that don’t fit the bigger circuits. I’m working on it. I just haven’t got that connection yet.”
Years ago, before he was training, Back was involved in the private purchase of an A.P. Indy colt out of Wayne Lukas’ stable. “He was my pride and joy. People would just ooh and aah when they’d see him at the track,” he says, and from the catch in his throat you know you don’t want to hear what comes next, that the horse died in a barn fire at a friend’s nearby farm. “I almost got out of it then, cause I just loved him. I wish I had him knowing what I know now, which is not a lot – but knowing what I know now and how I do it, I’d win a bunch of races with him.” His leather halter is hanging up in Back’s house.
Blatchford accompanies him to the paddock and helps with the saddling. At Fair Meadows the owners don’t use their own silks; the house silks match the numbered saddlecloths. The only statement Back is allowed are the crimson blinkers emblazoned with his initials in white – the color scheme of the University of Oklahoma Sooners. After putting Mario Galvan up into the saddle, Back and Blatchford join friends in the stands. They are easy to find; the cool weather and free admission have failed to attract many people, and the crowd is remarkably sparse. The regulars are surprised at the low turnout. Irishrunaway was left at the gate on his previous outing, and Back is worried tonight before the start of the 6½-furlong, $7,500 claiming event. He has the gelding’s owner, Linda Searles, on the phone to give her the play-by-play. His share of the $3,564 winner’s purse would make a huge difference to Back; he has “never had a paying owner” and Searles and Back have a purse-splitting agreement in place, where she has no out-of-pocket expenses. “It helps her out and gives me a horse to run so I can get my feet wet.” Searles, who lives in Louisiana, is the kind of person whovoluntarily offered to pay for half the gas when Back took Irishrunaway to Nebraska in May, where he was second. She says, “Mike is a hard-working young man, and he’s honest, which is very important to me. I hope he will get that big one so that he doesn’t have to work two jobs.”
For all practical purposes, Irishrunaway’s race is over as soon as it begins: he spots the field too many lengths at the start, and must make up ground going around two very tight turns on the bullring. The announcer gives him an optimistic call on the backstretch: “Irishrunaway is eating up ground!” His long stride carries him wide around the second turn and it almost as soon as they straighten out of it they hit the wire. With so much going against him, Irishrunaway finishes a creditable third. Back is encouraged. “When I run third I’m happy. I’m disappointed that I’ve run third but I’m just tickled to death, I’m the happiest guy in the world. I don’t like to get beat but if my horse runs hard, I’m happy, I’m satisfied.” More than that, this check will pay for fuel: oats and diesel, horses and horsepower. That genuine effort provides Back with what will be the highlight of his evening as he leads the gelding off to cool him out on the Equiciser. Hours later, in the maiden special over a mile, Bagadiamonds is a passive observer under Galvan and the bright lights. She fretted her race away in the stall, and as they walk down the track her dark coat blends into the blackness of night. Only the white of her right hind leg, star, shadow roll and tall trainer give her away. Blatchford has gone one better: the gelding who had the studdish horse in the next stall over (he finished fourth in his 300 yard dash) has run second in his race.
Irishrunaway is wound up, as though he were mad at himself for not being able to get there. He will, one day. For now, he squeals at Bagadiamonds…in the stall, through the barn, in the trailer. They leave for home; it will be close to midnight before they are tucked up in their stalls beneath the sleepy chickens and roosters perched in the rafters.
A window into the day of the trainer whose story is seldom told: to wonder why he does it is to be immune to the thrill of horses thundering into the homestretch, to not get goosebumps when Dave Johnson roars, “And DOWN the stretch they come!” Mike Back does not hesitate for a fraction of a second when asked if he would like to train horses full time: “Yes. Definitely. If you’re not getting excited about it, you’re in the wrong business.”