The colt exhales, steam from his nostrils wafting up to greet the cool winter air. He lowers his head, licking his lips as the tension melts away.
This is a defining moment, one that will set his course for years to come. The man steps to his side, pressing down on the colt's back with his hands first, then steadily adding more of his body weight until his feet are off the ground, and his stomach across the colt's back.
The colt's ears flicker back and forth, questioning the new sensation.
“What a good boy,” the man tells his young charge, soothing him with a light touch at the shoulder. “You don't know it yet, but you're going to be a racehorse, a good one. Just you wait and see.”
On a dry-erase board in the 2-year-old barn at WinStar Farm, painstakingly lettered in bright, fluorescent orange, are the following objectives:
- To operate safely with God's blessing and to each day improve.
- To do whatever it takes for each horse to reach his full potential.
- To help start the next Triple Crown winner.
The words are the same as the day Toby Richard wrote them three years ago. Little did he know, one of those colts would go on to win the Kentucky Derby.
“We watched the race from the paddock, on the big screen,” recalled his wife, Heather Stark. “I was just quiet and biting my nails as I saw the fractions show up on the board. And when Justify turned for home in front and Mikey (Smith) hadn't even asked him yet, we just started going crazy, cheering him all the way to the wire.
“We were soaked like ducks, but it was totally worth it. It was just a dream come true.”
The Richards, who work together at WinStar starting the young Thoroughbreds under saddle each year, were overwhelmed with joy as their former pupil proudly strolled toward them, into the Kentucky Derby winner's circle.
Swept up into the after-party in the Kentucky Derby museum, they had a chance to talk to jockey Mike Smith about the race.
“Mike said it was the easiest Derby he ever won,” Richard said.
The first to sit astride the now-3-year-old son of Scat Daddy, Richard recalled the colt had shown class from the very beginning. It was his wife, however, that spent the most time riding the young Justify as he learned his earliest lessons under saddle.
“He was always a tall, leggy boy, but so balanced and forward,” said Stark. “Just a total professional from day one.”
The Richards' three-month system for starting future racehorses is unorthodox in several ways. They spend a week or so doing ground work with the horses, showing them that pulling one way or the other on the rope halter translates into turning or stopping. The horses stay in a rope halter for the next two weeks, and are first ridden bareback before they are introduced to the saddle, and later the bit. Inside the roomy indoor arena, giant bouncy balls and plastic tarps are presented as toys, keeping the learning process interesting for the young, distractible minds.
“They're always fascinated by things that move,” Stark explained. “They might be scared until they touch it, but once they do, it's not a big deal anymore… We just train them like normal horses, not just racehorses, getting on and off from either side, riding them on the turf and in the paddocks, and going trail riding through the woods and walking over little logs. It's something different every day. It ends up with such a better outcome.”
“Somebody said to me, ‘I've never seen anybody do that with a million-dollar yearling,'” Richard added, grinning. “I said, ‘Watch, I'm gonna make him worth two million.'”
Both Heather and Toby Richard have loved horses for nearly as long as they can remember. He cut his teeth jockeying Quarter Horses in his native Louisiana and boxing on the weekends. Her father galloped racehorses before he was drafted by the military and kept his daughter company at weekend barrel racing events throughout her childhood.
Each ended up in Louisville separately, following their equine passion through the hard-scrabble racetrack life as exercise riders and finally they found each other beneath Churchill's Twin Spires in 2011.
Eventually they tired of following the sport around the country, so the Richards found year-round employment at WinStar in the late summer of 2015.
This summer, during the farm's quiet season, the hard-working couple will head south to Chile. There, they'll have two months to start a group of 40 horses “the WinStar way.”
“I'm always learning, always trying to improve,” said Richard. “You don't know how far you can go until you risk going too far, and I want to see how far I can go. We'll have to watch the rest of the Triple Crown on T.V.”
Meanwhile, as Justify prepares for the Preakness in just over a week, there is little doubt in Richard's mind the colt has what it takes to give trainer Bob Baffert his next Triple Crown winner.
“I'm one-third away from completing my mission,” Richard said confidently. “I think he can do it, and I know he thinks he can do anything because we've told him so since day one.”
Justify was a member of the second class of yearlings the Richards started at WinStar. The first group, now 4-year-olds, included standouts like multiple graded stakes-winner Good Samaritan, Grade 1 winner Yellow Agate, and recent G1 Old Forester Turf Classic winner Yoshida.
Still, that connection to two of this year's Kentucky Derby contenders-both winner Justify and 17th-place finisher Noble Indy were started by the Richards-will be hard to top. Adding to the gamut of emotion on the first Saturday in May, it was the couple's first wedding anniversary.
It rained on that idyllic afternoon, too, as the Richards' closest friends gathered to see them wed in WinStar's stallion barn on Oaks Day, 2017.
“It was all just meant to be,” Stark said, laughing. “We have WinStar dreams and lives, and we couldn't be happier.”
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