Monday, September 30, 2013


The Lover of Horses


Following the New York circuit, and the most of the big stakes nationally, you get used to the same names, to the extent that it’s quite boring. The homogenization of Grade 1-talent goes to the few, a monoculture of sorts. But it makes it all the more refreshing and damn near wonderful when you hear a different name win a graded stake, especially when you know that person, especially when you wrote an unpublished book about that person.

I received a voicemail from Good Ol’ Pete that the winner of the Grade 2 Matron Stakes at Belmont Park was won by a Jump Start filly named Miss Behavior, trained by none other than Phil Schoenthal. I was eager to receive the NYRA release to see what he had to say.

"In this game, you learn to temper your expectations,” said Schoenthal. “I didn't expect her to go to the front like that and open up. When she moved to the lead at the three-eighths pole, I said to myself, 'Don't run out of trainer, don't run out of trainer.' I'm sure we'll try her at two turns at some point, but she's a sprinter right now."

I picture him saying this. I hear him saying it. I hear the inflections. I see the hand motions as if he were riding the horse himself, as he once dreamed as a little boy riding a stick horse around his house in Batavia, Illinois. It wasn’t until much later he realized that jockeys were tiny people with tiny hands that it made sense that he couldn’t be a jockey. His full name is Philip, with one ‘L’, and the Greek translation is philihippos: philein meaning to love, hippos meaning horses, lover of horses. If it wasn’t nonfiction, it would be patently trite and lacking.

I picture him saying “Don’t run out of trainer” with a vibrant laugh, charming and media savvy as the day Glenn Craven and I met him back in 2005. Glenn was the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Dispatch, a small newspaper in Henderson, North Carolina, close to the Virginia border off I-85. I had been hired just three months prior, likely because I started talking about Smarty Jones and Glenn happened to be the one person in North Carolina who loved horse racing.

We received a release that Colonial Downs in New Kent, Virginia was hosting a media day where we’d be able to meet the leading trainer from the year before, 2004. It was July south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the kind of hot that squeezes all the water from you.

The director of communications asked Glenn and I if we wanted to meet last year’s leading trainer. My impressions of horse racing were narrow at this time, to the extent that I thought every trainer looked like Jack Van Berg, weathered and leathered.

She walked us to a well-manicured barn where a tall, skinny man wearing a bush hat raked his shedrow. He appeared to be the adult version of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. He was 26-years-old at the time. Phil Schoenthal. This was his first summer on his own. The last two years he was a private trainer for Mike Gill. Both Mark Shuman and Schoenthal trained Gill’s army of horses, even going to the Breeders’ Cup in 2003 with Forest Music, a filly, a sprinter.

So when Glenn and I met Phil he was happy to give us a tour of his barn, giving us the ins and outs, giving a lecture. It was the type of lecture I’d get dozens of time as he would take me under his wing for 2006 and 2007.

Phil would let me hot walk his horses, but I proved to be so inept that I was more a liability than anything. Horses saw fit to walk me, play tug of war with me, push me into walls, push me into wheelbarrows, bite me, rear up on me. Had I been properly wired and under the supervision of a cardiologist, he or she may think I was suffering from cardiac arrest when the lead shank was put in my hand. I didn’t instill any confidence in these horses, especially the two-year-olds.

Everything I know about horse racing I learned from Phil. I know he likes to buy fillies at auction over colts, because, fillies per pound of talent, are cheaper than colts. It allows you to get a more talented horse for the same price. It helps to pay the bills and it keeps owners happy.

Phil used to rub horses back in the mid 90s for an up-and-coming trainer who had just gone out on his own: Todd Pletcher. Phil beat his former boss in the Matron, eliciting this Pletcherism: “"She ran well. Second best."

Yet Garry Cruise, Miss Behavior’s jockey, said, “"I've always wanted to ride here. What a privilege it is to come to New York, and not only to win a graded stakes but to win for such great people. This is like, I would imagine, like a player coming to Yankee Stadium for the first time. The history of the place. It's an honor to be here today."

You hear in Pletcher’s voice the routine of it. You hear in Phil and Cruise’s voice how special it is. The trainer and jockey combo for this race was your classic who and who?

For most people, but not Good Ol’ Pete, and certainly not me.

Phil always used to tell me in horse racing patience is key. He always said the cream rises to the top, that he had to believe that. And the proof was out there on Big Sandy, a filly by Jump Start, trained by the lover of horses.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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