The Breeders' Cup World Championships bring together horsemen from across the globe, and this November's edition at Churchill Downs is expected to include a significant number of foreign contenders in addition to those who will ship in from all over the United States. The man in charge of coordinating that influx must consider not just United States Department of Agriculture regulations and shipping times but also the personalities and preferences of the trainers he assigns to share a shed row.
“It's like piecing together a puzzle,” explained Steve Hargrave, 48. “At the beginning of the meet we moved some people around in anticipation of the Breeders' Cup coming here, so I've been able to get a head start on preparing the barns that will be used to house those horses.”
Hargrave is the “stall man” for Churchill, responsible for assigning the track's 1,400 stalls on its main campus as well as another 450 at its satellite training center, Trackside. The job is more than just figuring out where to locate the horses; Hargrave is tasked as an equine concierge of sorts, making each horseman's stay at Churchill Downs as easy as possible.
For example, this week Toast of New York flew into Kentucky from overseas to race this weekend at Churchill. The Jamie Osborne trainee arrived at 3:40 a.m. on Tuesday, which meant Hargrave arrived at the track at 3:00 a.m. that morning to make sure everything was ready for the international traveler.
“Yeah, that was an early morning,” he laughed. “Racing seems like a roller coaster anyway. You go from just going through the motions to really busy, then it levels off again.”
It's nothing new for the veteran racetracker; he has overseen the stabling area for several Breeders' Cup events, including the 2010 edition at Churchill, and the 2015 and 2017 editions at Keeneland and Del Mar, respectively.
Hargrave also spent his youth beneath the Twin Spires watching his father, Mike Hargrave, do the very same job. After spending hours at the track with his father, he wanted so badly to work at Churchill Downs that he applied for a job in the mail room. Hargrave worked there for two years before the Trackside facility was opened in 1994 and he was able to join his father on the backside.
“The advantage of it was that I got my sea legs, I guess you could say, over at Trackside, while still working with my dad,” said Hargrave. “The other advantage was that after he retired, I could still absolutely pick up that phone… he was only a phone call away. And I did that a lot.”
The elder Hargrave held the stall man position from 1980 through 2010, when he officially handed the reins over to his son. Unfortunately, Mike Hargrave passed away suddenly in January of 2018 after a short battle with pancreatitis.
“He taught me how to do this the right way, and how to do it with integrity,” Hargrave continued. “It was a tribute to the way he laid the groundwork that I got invited to help with those Breeders' Cups. A lot of it is just communicating with these guys and getting to know the personalities.”
For Hargrave, his job is centered around building and maintaining relationships with trainers, both those regularly stabled at Churchill and those who ship in for big races. This is especially true during the Kentucky Derby season in the spring and of course during the lead up to the Breeders' Cup, but it extends to all the trainers stabled on the backside.
“I don't want to show any favoritism,” he said. “Now if you can do something to help somebody, you do it because that's what we do… But you just want to make sure that with anybody that gets here that they have the same experience.
“It's kind of like being in a hotel. If you don't have towels, we'll get you some towels.”
One of the first changes Hargrave made when he took over was to pull out an old map of the Churchill Downs backside from a back office and frame it. He then hung it prominently on the wall behind his desk, and now he can use dry-erase markers to write the names and stall assignments of each trainer on the board, making it easier to visualize the final decisions.
There are times those decisions are difficult as there always seems to be more horses and trainers wanting stalls than there is space. Each spring and fall, Hargrave and racing secretary Ben Huffman parse through mountains of past performances to determine the most efficient use of the available space. All the thought and care that goes into allotting stall space could be overwhelming, but Hargrave's long-standing relationships with all the trainers make his job that much easier.
“Still, I'm one of those lucky people who doesn't dread coming in to work every day,” Hargrave said. “There might be days that aren't so easy, but I always wake up in the morning and look forward to coming to work. I can't imagine myself doing anything else.”
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