At 15 years of age, Robert Tiller was making left-handed turns around a shed row. The soft, whispery noises of the horses and the smells of hay and straw each morning drew him toward the racetrack life; Tiller was hooked, and quickly left school behind.
“I pretty much went straight to the 'University of Woodbine,'” Tiller said, laughing. “That's where I got my real education.”
A member of the Canadian Hall of Fame and a three-time Sovereign Award-winning trainer, the 68-year-old Tiller could easily argue that his alternative schooling was effective. His training career began in 1972 and comprises a current total of 1,912 victories. Tiller estimates that 100 or so of those wins came in stakes races, with horses like Domasca Dan, Win City, Simply Lovely and Brass in Pocket.
In 2017, a horse named Pink Lloyd etched his name alongside Tiller's in the racing history books. The 5-year-old gelding became the first horse to win eight straight stakes races at Woodbine, all in the same season, and in so doing earned a special place in the trainer's heart.
(A horse named Vice Regal, by Northern Dancer, won eight straight races at Woodbine in 1968, but only seven of them were stakes races – the eighth was an allowance race.)
“I try not to fall in love with them,” said Tiller. “But this guy here, he gets two apples from me every day. Its not just the fact that he wins races, either. The horse is very, very kind in the shed row, walking around with his head nearly dragging the ground because he's so relaxed.”
Pink Lloyd wasn't always so endearing, however. The son of Old Forester was one of several yearlings that Tiller helped to select at the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society's September sale. Part-owner Frank Di Giulio paid $28,446 for the colt on behalf of Entourage Stable.
“In the beginning, he looked like the one who wasn't going to make it at all,” Tiller recalled. “There was a great assortment of little issues, and he was the type of horse that when anything happened to him, he'd make it three times as bad.
“But I'll never forget the first time I breezed him. That's when I knew he was a runner. He went 23 1/5 for a quarter with his head bowed, and the rider told me that there was no way he could have made the horse work any slower.”
It wasn't until August of his 4-year-old year when Pink Lloyd made his long-awaited debut. He won easily, completing six furlongs over the Tapeta in 1:09.01 (for reference, Woodbine's track record for six furlongs is 1:08.18). After three consecutive victories, Tiller entered Pink Lloyd in a stakes race.
Unfortunately, a heap of trouble prevented the horse from getting his first stakes win that day. He finished fifth, but came back to run a respectable second in the G2 Kennedy Road Stakes to Stacked Deck, the year's champion sprinter.
After taking the winter off, Pink Lloyd returned when Woodbine opened in April: he shaved a few ticks off his best six-furlong time to win the Jacques Cartier in 1:08.62. And he kept winning.
“When you put a horse beside him, he wants to win,” said Tiller. “In the mornings, we have to train him at 10:25 A.M., when the track is at its quietest. His exercise rider does a great job with him, and all the outriders know who he is. He's very hard on himself, and if there are horses next to him it can be really hard to hold him back.”
Pink Lloyd laid his heart on the track for all to see in the Aug. 30 Kenora Stakes. During the running of the race, he tore the shoe off one of his front feet, and a part of his heel went with the shoe.
“He had every excuse to get beat, and he just wouldn't give in,” Tiller said. “You can see the blood on his foot in the win photo.”
Given time for the hoof to heal, Pink Lloyd returned after two months to win another stake and closed out the season with a win against open company in the G2 Kennedy Road Stakes. It was an undefeated season.
“It's a terrific thrill to get a horse like him toward the end of my career,” said Tiller. “Right now, he's turned out for the winter, and I'm sitting here worrying about him today, that he'll find some way to hurt himself. You can't keep them in a glass cage, but… I think about him every day.”
Tiller sets himself apart from the other trainers at Woodbine by paying attention to what he calls the “little details.” The way he is able to accommodate Pink Lloyd's special needs, keeping the horse together through an undefeated season, is evidence enough to suggest those little details can make a big difference.
“I'm the kind of trainer who still gets on my hands and knees in the stall, and I know every horse in the barn,” Tiller said. “When I was first starting out, a horseman named Lou Cavalaris gave me some advice: he said, 'Son, everybody trains horses; it's a game of details.' I've never forgotten that.”
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