On a late June morning at Fair Hill Training Center, trainer Kelly Rubley kept a watchful eye on her last set of the day as they cooled out in her barn. It was a nice picture: multiple graded stakes winner Divisidero led the way, followed by his half brother, stakes-winning Gunnison. Breaking Lucky kicked up his heels in a paddock outside, finishing out a stint with Rubley before returning to George Weaver's barn.
Rubley has come a long way in a short time.
In 2009, she left two master's degrees and a job teaching middle school science to work as an exercise rider for Barclay Tagg. By 2014, she had hung out her own shingle after serving as assistant to Tagg and Jimmy Toner. She oversaw her first stakes winner in 2015, and Divisidero produced her first graded stakes victory last Saturday in the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap.
“It's exciting and I've been very fortunate with how this has moved forward. I think having it be my passion in life makes it that much easier to progress in a positive manner,” she said. “It helps when you love what you do every day, when you get out of bed and you really want to go to work. I can't say that was true in education. There were many a day I would have taken off if I could have.
“I loved the kids. It was everything else I didn't like. I think these horses are middle schoolers. They're always pushing their limits and seeing how far they can go. As long as you keep them in a nice structured environment everything usually goes well. And the parents stay out of it a little more here. I get to talk to horses now instead of kids, which is better.”
Rubley started with a string of 15 and two employees, getting on each horse herself. Now, she has 50 in training across two barns at Fair Hill. The transition from 15 to 50 has come with challenges. She's had to cut back on riding horses herself, and although she has a lot more stalls, she still considers hers a small operation in a sport dominated by mega trainers.
“When you're small like me, owners send you the horses that are the second and third string,” Rubley said frankly. “They're sending the big horses to the Chad Browns, and the Pletchers. This year, having more help I've been able to go to the farms and look at the babies and kind of push for one nice horse. All it takes is a couple of good ones and it gets your name out there and get people to pay attention.”
She struggled to find good help to keep up with the demand, although she considers herself lucky because most of the grooms she hired in her first years on the track have stuck around. She has three assistants: two who ride, and one who does paperwork, so she can focus on training.
Rubley said she never knew there could be so much paperwork associated with running a larger barn. This is no doubt compounded by her central location at Fair Hill, which allows her to run horses at a wide variety of tracks up and down the East Coast.
“Every night you're going through overnights to see what's out there, and the condition books are usually spread all over the couch in my office,” she said. “Every morning I get them out and double check myself even though I usually have a list of what I need to do. I always worry I'm missing something.”
On any given Saturday, Rubley may find herself traveling between three different states to saddle the horses her assistants can't. The Maryland base enables her to find an appropriate level of competition for each horse, though she and her owners prefer to avoid the claiming levels if they can.
“I really hate getting claimed,” she said. “I know I need to get a bigger business sense, but I can't do it. I do this because I love the horses, and I get really sad when they're gone.”
That love for the horse is part of what makes Rubley's operation so detail-oriented. She doesn't just know a horse's training style and way of going, she knows personalities. She knows who will drop enough grain on the ground for the barn goats, who needs to be hand-grazed instead of turned out, and who will pout when the rider turns them toward the training track instead of the gallop fields. Aftercare is important to Rubley, and her detailed knowledge of each horse helps her recommend options to owners when it's time to leave the starting gates behind.
Rubley said she believes it's her love for the animal that keeps owners coming back.
“You have your bigger operations that have 200-plus horses and it's impossible for that owner to talk to the trainer every day and have that trainer actually know their horse inside and out,” she said. “Somebody calls me and I've actually looked at the horse that morning and watched it train. And I don't want to get so big that I can't do that.”
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