Jack Sisterson has been out on his own for about a year training for the legendary Calumet Farm, but he had a first last weekend when he sent out stakes winners at two different tracks. Bandua captured the G3 Arlington Handicap as the favorite in Chicago on Saturday, and Lexitonian put up an 18-1 shocker in the listed Concern Stakes at Laurel on Sunday.
“It's always fun to win any race, and especially the stakes,” said Sisterson.
A native Englishman, the 35-year-old Sisterson is probably most recognizable as the pony rider accompanying Kentucky Derby winners I'll Have Another and Nyquist on their quests for Triple Crown glory. He spent the majority of his assistant's career working under trainer Doug O'Neill, but the University of Louisville alum also worked for trainer Todd Pletcher and did a brief stint in the bloodstock industry.
“I was so fortunate with Doug, who allowed me to sort of experience and learn the traits of how he trained 125 horses every day,” said Sisterson. “I wouldn't be sitting here if it wasn't for Doug. I think the big thing was that he allowed me to make mistakes and learn from them.”
Sisterson traveled the country with top horses from the O'Neill barn, learning the ins and outs via a trial by fire rather than long, arduous study.
“That's really how I picked things up quickly; he sort of threw me in the deep end,” Sisterson said. “He'd allow you to, in a split moment in time, to make a decision. And if it was the wrong decision, he'd say, 'You know what, next time make note and learn from that and adjust it.' I started to pick up things pretty quick; you either survive or you don't. He's a great teacher.”
The association with Calumet also came via his relationship with O'Neill. Sisterson was “humbled” by the offer to work for the Central Kentucky breeding farm, and his momentum seems to be building as he settles in to training a string at Keeneland.
Last year, Sisterson sent out four winners from 53 starters, while in 2019 he has already sent 12 winners from 63 starters. He has saddled the winners of four graded stakes races, and is preparing several of those for steps into tougher company.
Bandua, for example, could appear next in the entry box for the Arlington Million. The 4-year-old son of The Factor has a proven affinity for the Arlington turf, placing third in last year's G1 Secretariat Stakes, while his tactical pace and track-record setting performance in the Arlington Handicap could make him a legitimate contender against some of the best turf horses in the country.
“He's a horse that we always thought had a big performance in him,” said Sisterson. “He trains very well. Training-wise at Keeneland, leading up to the race at Arlington, we thought he'd put in a good performance and if he didn't, I would have taken the blame because he put forth a great month of training… But he ran like the way he was training, so I had a sigh of relief afterward.”
Lexitonian is also under consideration Grade 1 company, perhaps the Allen Jerkens at Saratoga, though Sisterson said stretching out the homebred sophomore by Speightstown isn't totally out of the question.
“I've only trained him as a sprinter, but he shows so much will, determination and heart to where two turns might not be out of the picture for him in his next start,” Sisterson suggested. “Maybe the West Virginia Derby or the Smarty Jones, or something like that.
“I've found sort of a niche with training him to where we've shortened up his gallops and shortened and slowed up his works dramatically and it sort of paid off for him… We'd work to change his gallops up and work on getting some air into his lungs and gallop him a lot further than we usually would, and see if he'd be able to withstand that. Then we'd probably start breezing him a lot further than a half-mile consistently, monitor him coming out of that work and see how long it takes him to cool out fitness-wise. Then we'd come back another five-eights in company with a distance-type horse and allow him to gallop out to see if he can sort of stretch that speed over a distance of ground.”
He's a long way from attending point-to-point races in England with his parents and dreaming of being a jockey, but Sisterson's humble attitude has served him well in his young career. As he continues to prove himself on the national stage, there is little doubt that Sisterson will remember the lessons he learned in some of the top barns in the country.
“You pick up different aspects from each training barn and TV and everything, you brainstorm and you do a lot of things,” he said by way of explanation. “Each horse is different so I try to train each horse the way they want to be trained, and the way they allow us to train them. I don't want to force a horse to do something that they're not willing to do, but by all means I don't want the horse to be taking advantage of us thinking that they're on some sort of vacation. The main thing is keeping the horses under our roof happy and healthy. As long as the horses are happy and healthy, and you keep your staff happy, the rest of it takes care of itself.”
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