Trainer Leonard Powell isn't afraid to be a bit different from his colleagues on the Southern California circuit. While others dream of roses and meet titles, 41-year-old Powell has a similar sense of achievement after a solid allowance win as he does in a stakes race.
“A lot of people say, 'I want to win the Kentucky Derby or the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe or the Epsom Derby,'” he said. “I don't have a race in mind. I'm just very satisfied when I can get the best achievement for the horse.”
Still, that doesn't mean Powell was unenthusiastic about his first career Grade 1 victory, which came Saturday, courtesy of Fatale Bere in the G1 Del Mar Oaks. Powell said the 3-year-old French-bred filly had been training well but didn't give him any major hints she may be sitting on a big performance.
“I was just hoping for a good trip because that's the key with her,” he said. “The first time around by the stands when she relaxed, I knew as long as she could get an opening and a clear run she was going to run her race. And on Saturday, running her race was good enough to win it.”
Powell would like to keep Fatale Bere in the company of other 3-year-olds for the remainder of the season and is considering the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Keeneland for her next start, then the American Oaks at Santa Anita. After that, Fatale Bere will get a vacation, which is something all of Powell's trainees can look forward to, before hopefully returning for a 4-year-old campaign. Powell gives horses of all levels periodic breaks of six weeks or so, even when they're training well – one of several European training methods he employs at his Santa Anita base.
“It's always better to give them a break when they are doing well than wait until it's too late,” he said. “It's like a human, you know? It's nice to go on vacation before you have the mental breakdown.”
Powell spent several decades learning from prominent horsemen on several continents before he hung out his own shingle in 2005. He grew up on his family's 200-acre Haras du Lieu des Champs in Normandy and rode flat and jump races as an amateur jockey. From there, he spent time studying under John Gosden and Martin Pipe of England's National Hunt races, Richard Mandella, Neil Drysdale, John Shirreffs, and the late Bill Currin stateside, as well as John Hawkes and Peter Snowden in Australia.
Powell has also spent much of his life surrounded by Thoroughbred talent: his brother Freddy is head of bloodstock at Arqana, while his stepbrother is well-known East Coast trainer Arnaud Delacour. Powell is also close with Flavien Prat, having spent a couple of seasons as Prat's official guardian when the young rider first came over from France.
“There's a rule in California that if you're not 18 you have to have a guardian to look after you to get your jockey's license,” said Powell. “He had been at the jockey school and he was only 17 but already had a very good head on his shoulders and a natural talent on the side.”
On Saturday, Prat won the G2 Del Mar Handicap, and the countrymen went to dinner to celebrate.
Powell has tried to incorporate bits and pieces of the training philosophies he has accumulated into his program. Another trick he learned from his counterparts in Europe was the benefits of long walks. The greater Arcadia area doesn't have Chantilly's wide open spaces, so Powell trainees wander the backstretch when they're done working.
“It's just like for humans: walking is a very good exercise,” Powell said. “I think that's something that's very predominant in Europe and not as much in the U.S. People just get the horses out of the stall and cool them off but they don't consider walking to be a form of training,” he said. “Sometimes my riders joke that they went to Los Alamitos and back in one set.”
He still gallops his own horses as much as he can in the mornings, rotating through the string so he can check in with each. He said this helps him get to know the personalities he's working with, which is key to unlocking their talent. Powell is frank about the difference between a Grade 1 winner and an allowance horse, however: it comes down to talent, not any one exercise method. The best he can do is help the horse fulfill that innate talent.
“I mean, I did just win a Grade 1 a couple of days ago, but they aren't common. I train Grade 1 horses exactly the same as I train other horses,” he said. “It's not different, it's just that the horse is more talented and that's why she won a Grade 1.”
Take popular (and sometimes moody) 10-year-old stakes gelding Soi Phet.
“As a 10-year-old, I don't do anything different from what I do with the others. It's just that he's special,” Powell said. “You have to have the horse. There's no magic, you know. A lot of people train bad horses in a very good way and just because the horse is not talented, you don't see the results on the racetrack.”
Powell will continue to try to find the horses with top-shelf talent. He picks many of his own trainees and his wife Mathilde owns a share in many of the runners in the shed row. But he said he'll look forward to helping each horse be the best it can.
“To me the best satisfaction is when I know the horse has achieved his maximum performance,” he said. “Even if it's not a horse that's very talented but I've won a race with him and I know that's the best he can achieve, the best he can give the owner, that's the satisfaction I get, to get the essence of every horse.”
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