Trainer Gail Cox has always loved horses, and her childhood memories are filled with images of riding for Sam-Son Farm back when the Canadian operation bred and raised hunter/jumper horses. Today, the farm is better known as a power-house Thoroughbred operation, for which Cox saddled the biggest winner of her career in last Saturday's Grade 1 Woodbine Mile, El Tormenta.
“They had too many, so I could ride as much as I wanted as a kid,” Cox explained. “It's so wonderful to train for them now. They have nice horses and they do everything right, and they allow you all the time in the world to develop them.”
Sam-Son's transition to racehorses began in the 1970s, but Cox didn't follow right away. She continued to ride hunters and jumpers professionally. Eventually, she gravitated toward the racetrack when she spent some time starting young Thoroughbreds under saddle.
“It just looked fun to do,” she said, laughing. “I used to gallop in the mornings and ride the big horses in the afternoons. It's a very different balance; your legs don't come into play as much on the track, and you have a different angle of your body.”
She galloped for Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame trainer Jim Bentley, then later for the Dan Vella Stable. Under her maiden name, Casselman, she sent out her first starter in 1993.
“When I started to come to the races, I found it really exciting,” said Cox. “I bought an early 2-year-old at the Keeneland January sale one year, and I wanted to be here all the time because I really didn't want to leave her in anyone else's hands. I just found it fascinating, and I got hooked.
“I guess because you can't really help out a racehorse as much. Racing is a very natural thing for a horse, and they're either fast or they aren't very fast. With a show horse, having a good rider on top can make all the difference in the world.”
Adding her pre-marriage statistics to her current ones, Cox has saddled the earners of more than $8 million over the course of her career.
It wasn't until two and a half years ago that Cox resumed her association with Sam-Son, however.
“I was at Keeneland, and Tom Zwiesler (Sam-Son's racing manager) approached me to say they were looking for a small outfit to take a few horses,” Cox said. “I got a few horses from them when I got back up to Woodbine that year, including El Tormenta.”
Then a 2-year-old, the son of Stormy Atlantic is a fifth-generation Sam-Son homebred. His tail female line traces directly back to foundation broodmare No Class, purchased by Sam-Son founder Ernest L. Samuel as a yearling at the 1975 Woodbine sale.
The stakes-placed No Class produced eight foals, four of which were crowned champions: Sky Classic ($3,240,398), Regal Classic ($1,456,584), Grey Classic ($602,029), Classic Reign ($327,808) and Classy 'N Smart ($303,222).
Multiple stakes winner Classy 'N Smart became the dam of Dance Smartly, the leading money-winning Thoroughbred in Canadian history and winner of the Canadian Triple Crown, Breeders' Cup Distaff, an Eclipse Award, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Classy 'N Smart is El Tormenta's fourth dam.
“I just had a few horses when he came in the barn, and it was very exciting to have him,” Cox said. “He was always a beautiful mover and very nice to train, but he was a bit immature and he got hurt. He ended up going back to the farm, and I got him back as a 3-year-old.
“He liked to race very forwardly then and we thought he was a sprinter, but when he went home again they ended up gelding him because he was one of the only colts on a farm full of mares and babies. Now, his style has changed and he's more relaxed, and he's able to run farther.”
The only time El Tormenta isn't relaxed is when he comes off the training track in the morning, Cox explained. She always accompanies him on the lead pony, to keep any antics he might display in check.
On Thursday, El Tormenta returned to the track for the first time since the Woodbine Mile. The colt appeared in good form, Cox said, and the entire Sam-Son team seems to be leaning toward racing him in the Breeders' Cup Mile in November at Santa Anita Park.
“He'll be the fourth horse I've taken to the Breeders' Cup,” said Cox, whose other starters were Hard Not To Like and Something Extra (twice). “It's nice because I sort of know the plan I would want to take to get him there… I wouldn't be worried about shipping him, either.”
It will be Sam-Son's first trip to the World Championships since 2011, and the farm's first with Cox at the helm. Her long history with Sam-Son has finally come full circle.
“Time sure flies by,” Cox summarized, “but this has always been what I wanted to do.”
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