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May 6, 2013

Training Race Horses For Tomorrow, Today

While training for racing, Vicarious also got an education over small fences at Red Top Farm in Aiken, S.C., with rider Gonzalo Garcia.

From jumping to dressage to eventing to pleasure riding, the retired race horse has long proven its ability and athleticism beyond the racetrack. Warmbloods have come to dominate at the elite levels of horse sport over the past decades, but off-the-track Thoroughbreds have enjoyed a renaissance of popularity in recent years, thanks in no small part to awareness-raising organizations dedicated to their aftercare like the Retired Racehorse Challenge, CANTER and New Vocations, to name just a few.

But while this aftercare is essential, there’s also a pioneering and bold idea quietly taking shape within a small racing syndicate outside of Saratoga, N.Y., called Mosaic Racing Stable. Rather than waiting for “retirement” to begin retraining these equine athletes for their second careers, founding partner Monica Driver incorporates a variety of schooling exercises into her race training—taking an essentially “before-care” approach.

From its inception, the members of Mosaic Racing, Driver explains, “agreed to always do right by the horse, even after racing.” The syndicate puts aside 15 percent of each horse’s race earnings for their retirement. But planning for the future doesn’t stop there.

“It made sense to me that if we were agreeing to care for the horse after racing, starting right away to prepare for that was a good idea—especially since it can make the horse happier in his job,” she says. 

Common Sense

While Driver’s idea is innovative, it’s not without precedent. Seattle Slew, the only undefeated Triple Crown winner (1977), was brought along with dressage work in concert with his race training in an effort to help the gangly and unbalanced colt become more effective on the track.

But herein lies one difference between Driver and other trainers. She’s implementing this cross-training approach with an eye toward the horse’s future, not simply in the hopes of creating a better race horse. And lest some worry it undermines their racing prowess, Driver has found strong support for her concept among some of the country’s top race horse trainers.

One of her current horses, a spectacular dark colt named Analysis, spent this winter with Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens in Florida and will continue his spring racing campaign at Belmont Park (N.Y.) under the expert eye of Jerkens’ son and fellow trainer, Jimmy Jerkens.

Driver found Allen a sympathetic partner early on. He and Driver are old friends (Driver has fond memories of working for him as a hot-walker in the ’70s), and she saw firsthand what Jerkens did to keep his horses happy.

“[Allen] was always doing this—turn-out pens, riding them in the afternoon, riding them bareback, riding them the wrong way on the track, jogging them endlessly,” recalls trainer Bill Higgins, a 30-year friend and colleague of Allen’s. “[He] always had a bent for that, so when it was introduced by way of Monica, it wasn’t that big of a jump.”

Jimmy echoes that sentiment about his father. “Years ago at Belmont, my dad used to use a corral where they’d set up jumps [for steeplechase training],” he recalls. “It was a little course inside of a quarter-mile training track. I remember he had a couple of fillies that were kind of sour from doing the same old thing, and they got a kick out of it, and it seemed to turn them around. When you have a horse that’s very sour, you’ve got to try to do things to turn their heads around. Sometimes things like that are a godsend.”

The Jerkenses aren’t alone. Michael Matz, Olympic medalist show jumper turned trainer of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, has long enjoyed the benefits of cross-training his horses. Matz likes to utilize cavaletti to “get their attention,” believing “it keeps their interest and is good for their minds.” So does it really make good sense to train a race horse over poles or even fences?

“If I didn’t think it made sense, I wouldn’t do it!” Matz replies with a laugh.

“Monica’s approach makes a lot of sense,” adds Rodney Jenkins, another legendary jumper-turned-race trainer. “It sure takes the boredom out of the horse—the everyday race horse that does the same old dang thing. It’s like a person. I think it freshens the horses’ mental state up, and also can’t hurt him as far as getting fit!” 

A Stitch In Time Saves Nine

It is this very word, “freshening,” that Driver uses to describe her approach.

“I hate to use the word ‘cross-training,’ as the implications are so strenuous,” she says. “We were really ‘freshening’ while using the time and good riders to teach something fun and useful for the future. It’s for the mind and for the future. It’s just good horsemanship.”

“Horses need downtime from any endeavor, I think. They need time off to graze, hang out and be horses, especially when they’re asked to live in a city and do something as physically and mentally demanding and stressful as training and racing,” she adds. “We don’t believe much in 2-year-old racing, and we don’t believe in year-round racing for our horses.”

Mosaic therefore winters their horses in Aiken, S.C., which allowed for Driver’s “before-care” idea to flourish. The area is chock full of top trainers in multiple disciplines over the winter months, and Driver was eager to tap into that wealth of expertise.

The horses begin their winter downtime at Red Top Farm, run by DiAnn Langer, who rode for the USET’s first all-female team at Spruce Meadows (Alberta) in the late 1970s. Since the ’80s, Langer has focused on starting and training hunters and jumpers, beginning in Los Angeles and then moving her base of operations to Aiken in 2007. But she has plenty of history with Thoroughbreds.

“I got exposed to the race horses [early on],” said Langer, whose first husband, Richard Lundy, worked for celebrated trainers Lucien Laurin and Charlie Wittingham. “I had the privilege of standing in the barn when Secretariat got off the truck; it was pretty exciting! Riva Ridge, Upper Case, Spanish Riddle—all those—I was familiar with, and it was very exciting to see those great horses.”

After six weeks or so of turn-out time with Langer at Red Top, Mosaic’s horses are taught to lengthen and shorten their stride, bend both directions, go over cavaletti, do a little bit of jumping and most importantly, as Langer says, “to walk on a loose rein. That’s a novel idea! I think that when they come off the track, they’re pretty road-weary. They’re stressed. It’s a very intense atmosphere, and letting them have that moment to take a breath, I think it’s very important.”

“Some Thoroughbreds have never even felt a leg on their side,” Driver adds. “This is such a small but obvious thing to consider when thinking ahead to a new career. The rider’s legs are a crucial part of any other equine discipline except racing, and of course, driving.”

Driver also paired up with like-minded trainer Suzy Haslup, who has a foot in both the racing and OTTB worlds. For years before she met Driver, Haslup always made sure she started her racing Thoroughbreds by exposing them to a variety of experiences and situations.

“[Other] trainers have always accused me of breaking [race horses] like show horses,” she says. “I always do a lot of groundwork, I always long-lined them, and then they graduated into a show ring. I always had a nice sand ring with jumps so they were exposed to that kind of thing, and we’d do cavaletti. I always broke my horses as if they would be something else someday.”

As someone with decades of experience, Haslup learned that a little extra effort in the beginning “makes it a whole lot easier when you get those horses back,” she says. “It makes it a lot easier to retrain them and make them into something else and sell them.”

Haslup also made a point of “hiring the best event riders she could find,” to help train her horses, one of which was U.S. eventing team member Heidi White. She galloped horses in the morning for Haslup and worked on eventing in the afternoons.

Not At The Horse’s Expense

Vicarious, a gorgeous dappled gray mare (Vicar—Watt Ever, Distinctive Pro), was Mosaic’s first guinea pig, so to speak, in the before-care program. Driver sent her to Haslup in the winter of her 2-year-old year to be conditioned at the Aiken Training Track prior to racing with the Jerkenses at Belmont in the spring.

In their daily workouts, White began by asking Vicarious to balance herself and work off her hind end at the trot as they hacked to and from the track. By her second winter in Aiken, she was taking on small jumps, putting on weight and having a blast.

“She loved it,” Langer recalls. “She was a natural. She was beautiful.”

In a heart-wrenching turn of fate, Vicarious, who retired sound off the track in the fall of 2010 at the age of 5 with a very respectable $114,172 in earnings and a bright future in show jumping, died of colic on the operating table in early 2011. Driver says she’s not the only one who still cries over the mare every now and then.

“I don’t have many photographs of horses on my walls, but I keep one of her,” White admits.

While Driver, White, Haslup and Langer never got to see the gray mare with the gorgeous, floating trot collect ribbons in the show ring, the mode of her training endures. Mosaic currently has two colts following in her footsteps, Circuitous (Skip Away—Watt Ever, Distinctive Pro) and Analysis (Freud—Watt Ever, Distinctive Pro). Both are simultaneously learning to race and beginning their education for whatever will come next.

“Mosaic and its partners want to enjoy racing what [horses] we have,” Driver says. “The investment isn’t great. Our goal isn’t a stallion prospect or a Derby winner. Not that we wouldn’t enjoy that! But we want to have fun at the races and help our horses have fun.

“Of course we want to succeed and make money, but we want to try not to have that happen at the expense of the horse,” she adds. “That expense is too high.”

With an outlook like that, it’s clear that regardless of their performance on the racetrack, Driver’s horses are sure to be set up for a promising future.

“If a horse is owned by Monica,” muses Jimmy Jerkens, “they’re the luckiest horse in the world.”

This was the cover story of the May issue of The Chronicle Connection, the Chronicle's digital publication.

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