Kelly Rubley marked a career milestone Sept. 19, less than two years after she began her own training operation — her first stakes win. And she wasn't even in the winner's circle for it. When Modernstone (GB) upset the Fasig-Tipton Ladies' Marathon Stakes at Kentucky Downs, drawing away by three-quarters of a length at odds of 29-1 under Rafael Hernandez, Rubley was 697 miles away at Laurel Park, screaming at her phone.
“I had a horse running at Laurel minutes after her race and one running at Charles Town, so I stayed here and thought I would get the two of them,” she said. “All of Laurel probably thinks I'm a little 'off.' I tried to explain it. I had a couple of minutes to regroup before they broke [at Laurel].”
Rubley didn't necessarily expect the 5-year-old Duke of Marmalade (IRE) mare to win her first American race that day, though she wasn't totally surprised by the victory, either. Modernstone had developed a solid career in her native England but had struggled to find her feet since importing in 2014. She had some struggles with illness, so owners Borus Stable, Gary Barber, and Wachtel Stable agreed that a freshening at Fair Hill could do some good. She transferred into Rubley's care and flourished at the European-style facility, turning in strong workouts that made the trainer feel good about sending her to Kentucky.
Although Rubley said she had no idea her first stakes victory would come so quickly (she started horses under her own name in April 2014 while still working for Jimmy Toner, but went full-time in her own operation in December), becoming a trainer had been on the horizon for a while.
Rubley is the only person in her family to have been bitten by the “horse bug.” Her parents took her to her first riding lesson as a child, assuming that would let her get the obsession out of her system, but instead it had the opposite effect. Rubley grew up mucking stalls and grooming in exchange for any opportunity to ride and developed a wide-ranging background that included show jumping, fox hunting, dressage, and eventing. Her parents insisted she get an education, so Rubley acquired two master's degrees, which she used to teach middle school science for a while. Ultimately though, she knew she needed to be someplace else.
“I just wasn't happy, and the one thing that has been a constant in my life was horses, so why not try to figure out a way to make that my life? There's nothing better than getting up and loving what you do every day,” she said. “We go out back [at Fair Hill] and it's like, 'People pay me to do this. I used to beg people to let me ride their horses.'”
Rubley came to the track in 2009 as an exercise rider for Barclay Tagg, advancing to assistant by the following year. Although light enough to be a jockey, Rubley said she always had her sights on being a trainer, which is why she went to work for Toner, managing his Fair Hill string while he operated in New York. The plan when she took that job was to eventually become independent, and both Toner and Tagg have cheered her on since she went solo.
The connections Rubley made in her time at each barn helped the transition — she started with four horses of her own and her operation now numbers 20, thanks in part to support from Ninety North Stable and Hare Forest Farm. Both are the types of owners she admits many trainers struggle to connect with early on.
As for being a woman in a male-dominated profession, Rubley said she doesn't think gender has been a complicating factor in getting started. If anything, it's made things easier.
“I actually have a few clients who have come to me because I am a female,” she said. “They want their horses to be cared for by someone they feel is very empathetic and understanding. I would say there are two sides to that and I am working with the positive side.”
Her sport horse background has helped, too. Rubley's dressage training was the toughest for her growing up, but it has taught her how to break down a horse's movement to see how he's feeling and given her tools like leg yielding and shoulder-in exercises to strengthen a horse's muscles.
That type of equine problem solving is what Rubley said she likes best about training, which is why quirky horses are her favorite. St. Albans Boy, the 5-year-old gelding who gave Rubley her first win, is just such a case.
“I enjoy those horses because it's so rewarding when they come around. They don't all come around,” she said. “You try to figure out what makes them tick. St. Albans Boy still has his own pony who takes him to the track every day and backs him up; things are done his way. But he also tries for us and he lets us enjoy his little world that he lives in.”
Actually, Rubley had imagined it would be St. Albans Boy who would bring her first stakes victory. Since breaking his maiden at Pimlico in her first month of independent training, he has picked up two more allowance wins and is stakes placed. He was fourth in the Grade 3 Kentucky Turf Cup Stakes earlier this month and is training well, which means Rubley's second career stakes win might not be far off.
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