Personal preference - training from horseback or the ground

By ED GOLDEN  At 83, when many men his age are riding wheelchairs in assisted living facilities, Darrell Wayne Lukas is riding shotgun on a pony at Thoroughbred ports of call from coast to coast, sending his stalwarts through drills to compete at the game’s highest level.  One of three children born to Czechoslovakian immigrants, Lukas began training quarter horses full time in 1967 at Park Jefferson in South Dakota. He came to California in 1972 and switched to Thoroughbred racing in 1978. Rather than train at ground level as most horsemen do, Lukas has called the shots on horseback lo these many years, winning the most prestigious races around the globe.  A native of Antigo, Wisconsin, he was an assistant basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin for two years and coached nine years at the high school level, earning a master’s degree in education at his alma mater before going from the hardwood to horses.  His innovations have become racing institutions, as his Thoroughbred charges have won nearly 4,800 races and earned some $280 million. They are second nature to him now.  “I’m on a horse every day for four to five hours,” said Lukas, who’s usually first in line. “I open the gate for the track crew every morning. I ride a good horse, and I make everybody who works for me ride one.  “My wife (Laurie) rides out most days. She’s got a good saddle horse. I make sure my number one assistant, Bas (Sebastian Nichols) rides, too.”  The Hall of Fame trainer is unwavering in his stance.  “I want to be close to my horses’ training, because I think most of the responses from the exercise rider and the horse are immediate on the pull up after the workout or the exercise,” Lukas said.  “I don’t want that response 20 minutes later as they walk leisurely back to the barn. I want it right there. If I’m working a horse five-eighths, and I have some question about its condition, I want to see how hard it’s breathing myself, before it gets back to the barn.  “I’ve always been on a pony when my horses train, ever since I started. I’ve never trained from the ground. If my assistants don’t know how to ride, they have to take riding lessons, and they’ve got to learn how to ride. I insist on them being on horseback.”  Wesley Ward, a former jockey and the 1984 Eclipse Award winner as the nation’s leading apprentice rider, is a landlubber these days as a trainer, yet has achieved plaudits on the international stage.  “I don’t think there’s any advantage at all on horseback,” said Ward, who turns 51 on March 3. “Look at (the late) Charlie Whittingham. “He’s the most accomplished trainer in history, I think, and he wasn’t on a pony . . . Everybody’s different. It’s just a matter of style. I can see more from the grandstand when the horses work.  “I like to see the entire view, and on a pony, you’re kind of restricted to ground level, so you can’t really tell how fast or how slow or how good they’re going.  “I like to step back and observe the big picture when my horses work. I can check on them up close when they’re at the barn. But all trainers are different. Some like to be close to their horses and see each and every stride. I’ve tried it both ways, and I like it better from an overview.”  Two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert, himself a former rider, employs the innovative Dick Tracy method: two-way radio from the ground to maintain contact with his workers on the track.  “I used to train on horseback,” said Baffert, who celebrated his 66th birthday on Jan. 13, “but you can’t really see the whole deal when you’re sitting on the track. From the grandstand, you can see the horses’ legs better and you can pick up more.  “On horseback, you can’t tell how fast a horse is really going until it gets right up to you. That’s why I switched. I have at least one assistant with a radio who’s on horseback, and I can contact him if someone on the track has a problem.”  Peter Eurton, a successful mainstay in California and starting on his third decade as trainer of a multi-faceted stable, is ambivalent. Now 61, the father of budding on-air superstar Britney (TVG, NBC) began his career as a jockey at 19 and rode for two-and-half years until he had to abort due to weight issues.  “There’s a slight advantage being on a pony,” Eurton said, “because you’re hands on, but on the other side of it, you’re limited being at eye level. On the ground, I can go up the grandstand steps for a panoramic view and see horses across the track as well as directly in front of me.  “There are advantages and disadvantages both ways. I don’t get on horseback now because I’ve had back spasms too many times from being arched over, so I tend to stay away from experiencing that discomfort.  “But other trainers love to get on horseback, and I totally get that.”  Val Brinkerhoff (62), who rode at bush tracks in Utah, Montana and other god-forsaken outposts for more than three decades before becoming a full-time trainer, still breezes his own horses when he wants to get a hard line on how they’re doing.  “You can probably get a better look at what’s going on if you’re on a pony on the track,” Brinkerhoff allowed. “You’re closer to the horses, but that said, if you’re watching from the stands with binoculars, there can be advantages as well.  “But I’d rather be on the horse working it myself. To me, that’s the most advantageous . . . I’ve never ridden a pony onto the track to watch my horses train. When I want to know something, I breeze them myself . . . I think the closer you are to the horses, and the more intertwined you are, the better off you are.  “I galloped 18 head today because my gallop boy didn’t show up,” Brinkerhoff said on a recent morning at Santa Anita. “I was getting tired and hoping I didn’t have a heart attack.”  Leonard Powell was weaned on training across the pond before gaining recognition in the United States, where the 42-year-old Frenchman achieved a racing rarity by sending out 47-1 shot Soi Phet to win the $100,000 Crystal Water Stakes by a head at Santa Anita on May 20.  Claimed for $16,000 in 2013, now at age 10, Soi Phet is believed to be the oldest stakes winner in Santa Anita’s storied history. The California-bred gelding has earned nearly $1 million.  “It’s definitely an advantage training on the track,” Powell said, “because there are things you can see on horseback you cannot see from the ground, plus nothing is lost in communication between trainer and rider.  “Whenever a trainer can get on his own horses, it’s a lot better. I’ve become too heavy to breeze my horses,” he said with a chuckle, “but I always prefer to be on a pony or on horseback. That enables me to focus more on my workers without distraction. In Europe, I’d say about 50 percent of trainers are on a pony.”  Art Sherman, yet another former jockey whose training career reached its apex with two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome, plied his trade aboard equines when he was younger, but approaching his 82nd birthday come Feb. 17, now confines his tutoring on good old terra firma.  “I used to have my own ponies,” Sherman said, “but not now; I watch my horses work from ground level these days. It was good being on a pony, but when you get my age, it’s a little tougher to get on a horse. I really don’t see any significant difference in training one way or the other.”  Similar to fellow octogenarian, Lukas still holding the reins during training hours is no surprise to Sherman. “Being on a pony is as natural to him as getting up in the morning and putting on his boots,” Sherman said.  John Shirreffs, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, then headed to Hawaii to become a surfer after his discharge, is more than comfortable maintaining a low profile, be it on horseback or the ground. But if he had his druthers, he’d prefer training while on a pony.  As for being in the public eye, Shirreffs does so with reluctance, bringing to mind a description of Ty Cobb—arguably the greatest baseball player of all-time, but a tyrant on and off the field. Of the irascible Cobb, a peer once said, “He played his whole career with his teeth clenched.”  Thankfully, Shirreffs isn’t close to being in that league. When push comes to shove, he is mellow, intelligent and introspective.  “It’s always nice to be on your pony because you’re not talking to anybody,” said Shirreffs, 73.  “There are no distractions on a pony,” he added with a chuckle. “Everybody trains differently, but I like to ride the pony just because I like to sit on a horse.”  Despite setting the gold standard as a Thoroughbred trainer early on in a career spanning more than half a century, Lukas, to the game’s benefit, has no plans to retire and ride off into the sunset.  He will follow in the philosophical footsteps of Charlie Whittingham, who, when asked when he would retire, always had the same retort: “Retire? Retire to what?”  Lukas adheres to the same mantra. Asked if the day will come when he calls it a career, he responded quickly and unequivocally with this:  “I’m going to train right up to the end.”

By Ed Golden

At 83, when many men his age are riding wheelchairs in assisted living facilities, Darrell Wayne Lukas is riding shotgun on a pony at Thoroughbred ports of call from coast to coast, sending his stalwarts through drills to compete at the game’s highest level.

Darrell Wayne Lukas accompanies Bravazo, ridden by Danielle Rosier

Darrell Wayne Lukas accompanies Bravazo, ridden by Danielle Rosier

One of three children born to Czechoslovakian immigrants, Lukas began training quarter horses full time in 1967 at Park Jefferson in South Dakota. He came to California in 1972 and switched to Thoroughbred racing in 1978. Rather than train at ground level as most horsemen do, Lukas has called the shots on horseback lo these many years, winning the most prestigious races around the globe.

A native of Antigo, Wisconsin, he was an assistant basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin for two years and coached nine years at the high school level, earning a master’s degree in education at his alma mater before going from the hardwood to horses.

His innovations have become racing institutions, as his Thoroughbred charges have won nearly 4,800 races and earned some $280 million. They are second nature to him now.

“I’m on a horse every day for four to five hours,” said Lukas, who’s usually first in line. “I open the gate for the track crew every morning. I ride a good horse, and I make everybody who works for me ride one.

“My wife (Laurie) rides out most days. She’s got a good saddle horse. I make sure my number one assistant, Bas (Sebastian Nichols) rides, too.”

The Hall of Fame trainer is unwavering in his stance.

“I want to be close to my horses’ training, because I think most of the responses from the exercise rider and the horse are immediate on the pull up after the workout or the exercise,” Lukas said.

“I don’t want that response 20 minutes later as they walk leisurely back to the barn. I want it right there. If I’m working a horse five-eighths, and I have some question about its condition, I want to see how hard it’s breathing myself, before it gets back to the barn.

“I’ve always been on a pony when my horses train, ever since I started. I’ve never trained from the ground. If my assistants don’t know how to ride, they have to take riding lessons, and they’ve got to learn how to ride. I insist on them being on horseback.”

Wesley Ward, a former jockey and the 1984 Eclipse Award winner as the nation’s leading apprentice rider, is a landlubber these days as a trainer, yet has achieved plaudits on the international stage.

Wesley Ward

“I don’t think there’s any advantage at all on horseback,” said Ward, who turns 51 on March 3. “Look at (the late) Charlie Whittingham. “He’s the most accomplished trainer in history, I think, and he wasn’t on a pony . . . Everybody’s different. It’s just a matter of style. I can see more from the grandstand when the horses work.

“I like to see the entire view, and on a pony, you’re kind of restricted to ground level, so you can’t really tell how fast or how slow or how good they’re going.

“I like to step back and observe the big picture when my horses work. I can check on them up close when they’re at the barn. But all trainers are different. Some like to be close to their horses and see each and every stride. I’ve tried it both ways, and I like it better from an overview.”

Two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert, himself a former rider, employs the innovative Dick Tracy method: two-way radio from the ground to maintain contact with his workers on the track.

Bob Baffert

“I used to train on horseback,” said Baffert, who celebrated his 66th birthday on Jan. 13, “but you can’t really see the whole deal when you’re sitting on the track. From the grandstand, you can see the horses’ legs better and you can pick up more.

“On horseback, you can’t tell how fast a horse is really going until it gets right up to you. That’s why I switched. I have at least one assistant with a radio who’s on horseback, and I can contact him if someone on the track has a problem.”


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