Their phone rings after midnight, a barn watchman alerting them to an emergency situation with a sick horse. Or they have to explain to their boss how a horse got loose from a hotwalker, possibly impacting its chances in its next race.
On the track, they exercise a horse too fast during a workout, upsetting the delicate balance between razor sharpness and overexertion. They pick up the slack for absent employees, and they're prepared to pack their bags at a moment's notice and drive overnight to a different track to greet a van filled with horses.
The life of an assistant trainer entails sacrifice, joy, heartbreak, excitement and frustration – along with knowing the rewards are worth the long hours and countless setbacks.
At Tampa Bay Downs, where a number of high-profile trainers entrust their high-priced Thoroughbreds with underlings, anonymity is part of the package.
Even after a victory, Andy Hansen (assistant to Eoin Harty), Chelsey Coady (William “Buff” Bradley), Ben Trask (Michael Stidham), Cat McGee (H. Graham Motion) and Cesar Morales (Ian Wilkes) are quick to blend into the background.
That suits Hansen, a former jockey and trainer, just fine.
“If somebody thinks they are going to come into a stable and be 'the man' and all that, the best thing I can tell them is to leave their ego at the gate when they drive to the barn in the morning,” Hansen said.
“I rode races and I trained on my own, but I'm still here to work for Eoin Harty. I'm not here to try to make a difference,” Hansen said. “My job is to be his eyes and ears and get done what he needs done.
“I've seen a lot of guys who come here thinking he (the trainer) doesn't know what he's talking about. You do that, you're not going to last very long.”
In the swirl of elation that occasionally horns in on the mundane, even the best-intentioned assistant can lose sight of the main objective. Early in her career under Bradley, Coady received a plum assignment to breeze a well-bred filly a “nice and easy” three-eighths of a mile during training hours at Churchill Downs.
Most of the filly's owners were in attendance, but Coady blocked out everything except her desire to engage with her horse's class. “On a really nice filly, sometimes you don't know how fast you're going. They make it seem a lot easier than it is,” she recalled.
Coady let her filly duel with another horse working out, each Thoroughbred's instincts taking over as they sped to the wire. “I let her go way too fast, and she did it so easy that it made it way too fun,” she said.
A fleeting emotion, totally unlike the chewing-out she got from Bradley, who calmed down long enough to reinforce the importance of following his instructions within the context of their overall plans for the horse.
Five years later, Coady has absorbed enough knowledge to the point where she usually is on the same page with Bradley when it comes to preparing a horse for a race.
“He'll tell me 'We need to breeze this horse here,' and I'll say 'I already did it,' ” Coady said.
Such interaction is essential for head trainers who spend most of the meeting away from Oldsmar. Harty's main string is in California, while Bradley, who also races at Fair Grounds, owns and operates Indian Ridge Farm in Frankfort, Ky.
Their situations require an assistant who can think one move ahead and make decisions on their own to keep the wins coming.
“I enjoy every aspect, because I feel like an assistant needs to have done it all,” Coady said.
Ben Trask, who works as Michael Stidham's Tampa Bay Downs assistant, has spent more time in the winner's circle this season than all but a few trainers. The Stidham barn has sent out 15 winners from 66 starters, good for a tie for fourth in the track standings, while also winning at a good clip at Fair Grounds.
Trask, who trained on his own from 2011-2014 and also worked as an assistant to Wayne Catalano, is confident in his ability to keep the engine humming. When he starts to feel overwhelmed, he hearkens to what Stidham told him two years ago when he was hired.
“One of Mike's famous quotes is 'There are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who get it done and the ones who don't,' ” Trask, 25, said. “When I call to tell him I can't get something done, he'll stop me and say 'There are two kinds of people. …'
“At that point, I know I need to figure it out and get it done,” Trask said. “Mike supplies me with good horses to run and pretty much lets me do my own thing. I might call him and say 'Do you think we can get away with running this horse for $16,000 (the claiming price) instead of $25,000?' and he'll say 'Well, let me call the owner and see if they're OK with that.' ”
While Trask hopes to have another opportunity to train on his own, the decision isn't as simple as putting in a few years and hanging up a shingle. McGee, a 28-year-old Purdue University graduate who has worked for Motion for almost six years, doesn't know when her time will come, but believes she'll get there by following the example set by her boss.
“People always ask me if I want to be a trainer, but I think I still have time to figure that out,” said McGee, who wanted to work for Motion from the time she got to hotwalk Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. “Right now, I love what I do. I get to travel and I get to work with some amazing people and some amazing animals, so I'm going with it because I enjoy learning and working with these really nice horses.
“I want to be able to learn as much as I can. I understand the responsibility, the gravity of what Graham does. It would be very cool to be a trainer, but I want to be sure I'm ready for it,” McGee said.
“I'm playing with the big boys now, but I'm on someone else's team. It's different when you create your own team.”
One trait each of these assistants possesses is gratitude, both for the opportunity to work for leading trainers and to be surrounded by top-of-the-line Thoroughbreds.
For the 33-year-old Morales, who started in the business as a hotwalker and groom, every morning opens a new door to learning. He values every step of the journey, which began in 2001 when he moved to Louisville, Ky., from Mexico and went to work for Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger at Churchill Downs.
Nafzger employed Wilkes as an assistant, and they were six years away from winning the Kentucky Derby with Street Sense, also the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby winner.
“There are a lot of advantages to starting from the bottom. You pretty much learn all the basics and then it's easier to make decisions,” Morales said. “The horses will teach you a lot. Every horse has a different personality, and they'll show you how they want to work and tell you what they want to do.”
Morales, who says he was afraid of horses as a boy, has followed in the footsteps of his father, Saturnino, who worked for trainer Frank Brothers as a groom in the early 1990s. While Wilkes is in south Florida or at Fair Grounds, Morales oversees about 15 head at Tampa Bay Downs.
“My dad is proof that if you work hard, your dreams can come true,” Morales said. “The first time when I went to work for Carl, I was watching everything and I thought that one day I wanted to be working as a foreman or an assistant. Now, a lot of years after that, here I am.
“This industry is easier if you're willing to work, because you don't need a college degree to become a foreman or an assistant or a trainer.”
But assistants and their significant others need plenty of patience and understanding to make a relationship work, from both sides. Sometimes it helps when both are immersed in the business, but there are no certainties.
While Morales jokes that he is unattached except to his job, the time and energy needed to run a stable can keep candlelight dinners to a minimum.
Last year, Coady married Kurtis Coady, who co-owns Coady Photography, which has deals with 29 racetracks to provide top-quality photographs. He is based at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, and they spend far less time together than either would prefer.
“Every few weeks he'll fly here, and we're together all summer,” Chelsey Coady said. “It's a lot easier for him to get away than it is for me. He knows what my job entails, and he supports it 100 percent.”
She has also experimented with photography, and some of her work has appeared on his company website.
“This job is very demanding. You're the first one to get here and the last one to leave, and it's seven days a week,” Coady, 24, said. “There isn't much time to have an outside life. We get a week's vacation every year and I take every bit of that week.
“But it's a personal choice. You have to be strong enough to handle it, physically and mentally.”
Trask is in a relationship with Emily Castrenze, an exercise rider who works as an assistant for trainer Arnaud Delacour. It sounds like the best of both worlds, but circumstances can change in a hurry.
Four years ago, Catalano asked Trask to drive 750 miles from Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., to New Orleans to greet horse vans on a Saturday and a Sunday morning. Trask had been in Catalano's employ four days. “At that moment, I told myself I was either going to make it or I wasn't, so here I go,” Trask recalled.
He arrived on Friday and managed to find an apartment, but there still was the matter of navigating through downtown New Orleans early Saturday morning without being sure where he was headed.
Trask understands now that it's all in a day's work.
“The lifestyle takes getting used to. I can't see myself doing anything else, but the moving around part kind of stinks,” Trask said.
Hansen, who is divorced, has two daughters, one 26 and the other 13. His younger daughter says she'd like to be a jockey, and Hansen wants to provide her with the opportunity to chase her dream the best he knows how.
“People don't realize the stress of training racehorses,” Hansen said. “You are always on your toes, and with the expenses, the people you deal with, workmen's comp and things like that, it takes a lot of effort to do things the right way.
“When I came to work for Eoin, I was looking to do something for two months and now it's two years,” he said. “As long as I have a job and can provide for my daughters, I'm happy. I don't feel that I have anything to prove.”
McGee has dated a gallop person at Tampa Bay Downs for almost a year, yet she is unsure he has a full understanding of her level of commitment. Overseeing a number of hotwalkers, grooms and exercise riders, while dealing with veterinarians and the occasional owner who pays a visit, can make free time seem like a mirage.
“When you're in charge, whatever happens in your barn is your responsibility,” McGee noted. “If a groom puts a bandage on wrong, it's your fault you didn't check that bandage. Any time something is not up to par, Graham lets me know.
“He is a gentleman about it, but for Graham (who moves between the Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach and Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, with an occasional excursion to Tampa Bay Downs), it's all about the horses. It's hard for somebody who doesn't have that kind of passion for this sport and these animals to understand.
“Our job is to do right by them in every way.”
Hansen has acquired a keen eye for how a horse feels through his career as both a jockey and trainer. A former assistant to Don Von Hemel and Gene Cilio, he is comfortable bouncing his thoughts off Harty before a decision is reached.
“One thing I learned from Von Hemel is to let the horse tell you what it's capable of,” Hansen said. “You can't train every horse the same, but you can tell by the way they're acting or training what they can do. Some might come off the track with a little pep in their step; how aggressive they are will also tell you a lot.
“A lot of the fillies, you have to take your time with them, because if you train them like you train a colt, some of them will just fall apart on you. The key pretty much is to keep them happy, because if they're happy, they'll run for you.”
And while that sounds like an achievable task, the doors to knowledge in the Thoroughbred training game often require several keys to open.
“I believe that horses are a reflection of who you are as a person,” McGee said. “You can tell a lot about them by how they react to people. You can't ever trust them completely, but at the same time there is a level of trust you need to be able to work with them.”
Coady was 19 when Bradley hired her. “It was scary, me being a little country kid from Ocala and going to the big city. But I believe if it's something you want to do, go with it,” she said. “Not every horse is going to be a great horse; not every horse is going to win.
“But when you take one that has had a difficult upbringing and get it to the races, and you watch it win, that's very enjoyable.”
Morales experiences inner joy every time one of his horses takes a step forward in its development.
“One minute you're watching them galloping and seeing what they like and how they improve, and then they get to the races and your horse wins. It's a feeling you can't explain,” he said.
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