Thoroughbred trainers are most certainly their own unique breed, blessed with a nearly infinite sense of optimism that the next horse will be “the big one.” Those with smaller stables, the “little guys” of the racing world who work day in and day out just to make ends meet, are especially full of hope. When they achieve success on the sport's biggest stages, uncontainable joy explodes forth onto their faces as they join the fruit of their labor in the winner's circle.
It can be easy to overlook even that smile in the sea of happy faces present on Arlington Million day. It is even easier to miss when the race in question is run just after the biggest events of the day, a point at which most of the fans had already begun their treks toward home.
Michelle Lovell saddled her first graded stakes winner on that Arlington card, sending out 3-year-old Fault to win the G3 Pucker Up just after the running of the Arlington Million. Standing at the hip of the little bay filly to get her picture taken, Lovell's bright smile is a poignant reminder that hard work really does pay off.
“Oh, it was so exciting,” Lovell said, adding: “What was most impressive to me was the way she did it.”
Off at odds of over 12-1, Fault (Blame) was tucked in about mid-pack in the 1 1/8-mile turf contest and had only advanced to fourth by the head of the lane. Jockey Miguel Mena was able to find a seam in mid-stretch to angle the filly to the outside, and she flew the final eighth of a mile to get her neck in front at the wire.
Even more meaningful, especially for owner Mark Martinez (Agave Racing Stable), was the fact that Lovell had claimed Fault for $50,000 in early May. Since she was claimed, Fault has not finished worse than second, despite moving up in class for each start.
“We look for horses with an upside when we go to drop a claim,” Lovell explained. “With Fault, we picked her because although she was young and immature, she was very sound. We thought we might be able to help her move forward, and she has just been so honest since day one.
“She gets to feeling really good; she's quite playful, bucking and kicking. I would normally walk a horse the day of a race, but she was feeling so good I had to send her out to jog Saturday morning. Still, when she left the test barn after the race, she was kicking her feet up over her head. She's just a happy girl, and that's the only way she knows how to show it.”
Growing up in West Palm Beach, Fla., Lovell first fell in love with horses when a pony came through her suburban neighborhood. After talking her way into getting her picture taken with the pony, Lovell was determined to find a way to work near the horses.
After high school graduation, she found a job as a groom at Dogwood Stables and eventually worked her way back to Ocala where she helped to break babies for nearly six years. Several years at the racetrack saw Lovell work for Phil Gleaves (former assistant to Woody Stephens) and Larry Jennings, Sr.
Once she had a handle on how to gallop and breeze horses on the racetrack, Lovell pursued her jockey's license. She rode for six years under the name Michelle Hanley, winning a few races here and there, but she was never able to ride as many as she wanted.
In 1994, Lovell began what would be a five-year hiatus from the racetrack. With a group of friends she opened a coffee shop in Oregon and worked as a photographer for some time.
“It's true what they say,” said Lovell. “Once racing gets into your blood, it never really leaves you. I had to go back.”
Lovell returned to race-riding in 1999 in San Antonio, Texas, but an injury forced her to retire from the saddle for good shortly thereafter. All told, she'd won 137 races.
Returning to what she knew, Lovell again found herself working with young horses and breaking babies. This time, she was trying to sell them on behalf of a few small clients. Inevitably, some of the horses didn't sell, so Lovell ended up training “by default.” She officially got her training license in 2003.
“When you win as a trainer, you really appreciate that win so much more than you do when you're a jockey,” said Lovell. “When you're a jockey, the victory is personal; when you're a trainer, it's a total team effort. Before I trained, I never really appreciated how one small mistake from the jockey can cost so much to the owners and to the trainer, even to the stable staff.”
It was 2004 when Lovell was introduced to Martinez, a native of San Antonio. He became her biggest supporter for several years and still keeps at least a few horses in her stable despite having moved the majority of his interests to Southern California.
“I'm honestly surprised that bigger connections haven't found their way to her yet,” Martinez said. “She's just very good. All she needs are the right horses.”
In 2011, Lovell moved away from the relative security of the Louisiana and Texas circuits (she finished second in the standings at Louisiana Downs in 2010) to Kentucky's Churchill Downs. Currently her stable is comprised of 18 horses on-track, and she also keeps tabs a number of her clients' young horses and older horses who need time away from the track, stabled at a farm in Lexington.
In the mornings, Lovell can be found on the back of her trusty pony “Elwood,” riding alongside her Thoroughbred charges as they go through their morning exercise.
“Riding the pony keeps me closer to the horses, but I can see a lot more than if I was on their backs,” she explained. “We call audibles all the time, stepping up or backing off a horse's activity based on the way he or she is acting that day. Being on the pony, I can discuss it with my riders as we go along.
“My help all knows that I'm not just sending the horses out there to go around the track. I want to teach them… When one of my horses sees a horse in front of him in the stretch, he knows that his job is to run that horse down. It's a mental game.”
While Fault has certainly earned a place in Lovell's heart after her big victory, she's not the trainer's all-time favorite. That honor goes to a gelding named Newfound Gold.
A war-horse in every sense of the term, Newfound Gold was 10 years old when Lovell claimed him for $10,000 at the Fair Grounds. He had run in claiming races for nearly his entire career, beginning at Emerald Downs in Washington, through Southern California, Florida, and even Kentucky before making his way to New Orleans. The gelding had changed hands via the claim box 18 times.
She ran him just one more time, because he truly enjoyed his job as a racehorse, and he was fit and sound. He'd never won an allowance before, but at 10 years old Newfound Gold did just that, gamely coming back in the lane to win by a nose on the wire.
After that win, Lovell retired Newfound Gold, and plans are in motion to have the gelding live out his days at Old Friends Farm in Lexington. His final race record stands at 22 wins, 16 seconds and nine thirds from 57 starts, with earnings of $346,609.
“I love that horse, he's just so incredibly special in his own right,” Lovell said. “He won so many races for so many connections, bringing joy to so many people. He started at the very bottom and continued to improve throughout his career. He deserves a great retirement where anyone who ever owned him can come and see him.”
That's just the kind of person Lovell is. The horses in her stable aren't tools of the business; for her, they are there for the sole reason that she loves waking up and going to work with them every morning.
“I really enjoy horses,” said Lovell. “Because I was a rider, the way I view making a racehorse better is by making them happy. They can't do anything if you're forcing them. We put a lot of effort into individual horses, getting in their heads and making sure they are happy at their job.”
Happy horses, happy trainer: a winning combination. You can see it all in their smiles.
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