By 2007 Tom Skiffington had spent over three decades of his life training Thoroughbreds. Despite a resume that included 53 graded stakes wins and runners earning over $24 million, Skiffington left the business with relatively little fanfare and no hard feelings.
“I'd seen it happen to guys that were better trainers than me – one year you're in the Hall of Fame, the next year you can't get any horses,” he said. “My star started fading. Once I had Spook Express [who took a misstep and was euthanized during a bid for the 2001 Grade 1 Matriarch], my phone really wasn't ringing. I always thought I had a choice: I could go to work and lose money or I could stay home and break even, so I decided to break even.”
Skiffington, a Virginia native, came to training a little differently than many flat racing specialists. He grew up in Pony Club and foxhunted, easily making the transition to riding steeplechasers on the Mid-Atlantic circuit. Ever ambitious, Skiffington rode steeplechasers in Europe for a time “to see how I would stack up against the best” and came back to the States to train. He made the transition to flat racing when he decided the jumps world wasn't quite big enough for him.
Because of his show horse roots, Skiffington kept one foot in the hunter/jumper world during his racetrack career, investing in horses when good prospects came along. His daughter had ponies who were named national champions several times, and he had a horse crowned champion in an amateur division in the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden.
He also invested wisely off the track, purchasing property around the Central Florida area before it became the epicenter of the sport horse world in the fall and spring. He owned a share in Maxzene, the multiple graded stakes-winning daughter of Cozzene he trained to win more than $1.1 million, and he used his profit from her sale to buy a seven-acre farm in Wellington, a few fields away from the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.
When he made the decision to leave the racetrack, it made sense to settle onto his Wellington property. So, after a year traveling to see the places he never had time to before (New Zealand, Australia, and Africa), Skiffington made the switch back to his hunter/jumper roots at Catomine Farm. Skiffington and longtime partner Dr. Jennifer Prior sell hunter/jumper prospects and lease out part of their farm during the winter season. He says he misses the people he met on the racetrack, but he's happier in his new career.
For Skiffington, the business changed between the time he took out his trainer's license in 1979 and the time he saddled his last horse in 2008. As small private stables made way for large operations run by syndicates, the trainer's role in a horse's life changed and it wasn't Skiffington's cup of tea.
“I got into horses because I really didn't like people. I saw the business go to, you had to become more of a people person than I was willing to do,” he said. “Shug [McGaughey] and I worked with the Whiteleys, and when we'd run horses, the horse would run and we walked straight back to the barn. And you don't dare show up in at the barn with a blazer on if you worked for Frank Whiteley.”
Skiffington can also remember when he felt his operation of 50 to 60 horses was large enough to put clients off. In fact, he admits, he used to lie and say he had 20 or 30 since he kept half his string at Fair Hill and half at the track, just to avoid scaring off a new owner who he worried might think he didn't have time for more horses.
“Wayne [Lukas] changed it. He made it ok for the trainer not to be so hands-on,” Skiffington recalled. “Now, Chad Brown's got 300, Mark Casse's got 300. God bless those guys, they're much more skilled than me because I couldn't do that. And I didn't want to do that.”
The show horse landscape has changed in Skiffington's time, too – when he was on the track several decades ago, he made a side business out of purchasing Thoroughbreds from the 2-year-old sales for $2,000 or $3,000 and working with one of his show horse contacts to get some miles on the horse. Then, he could sell the horse as a show prospect or riding horse for accomplished young riders. Now, Skiffington echoes the observations of many, saying the European Warmblood has become the popular choice for hunter/jumpers, partly out of fashion and partly out of a perception that they are easier for amateurs to ride. But from where he sits, something else has changed to make the Thoroughbred less popular in the show ring, too.
“The biggest thing that also happened was that as they raised the purses for the lesser horses,” he said. “It used to be in the old days if someone had a horse who was slow and sort of pretty, it cost too much to keep him in training because the purse was so small they'd sell him at a reasonable price and get rid of him. As the purses got higher, they just kept running them and injecting them. By the time they were through, there was nothing to salvage. There are some incentive programs and that helps, but to find a horse off the track nowadays that's going to compete in the high end, it's really tough.
“That was one of the other things I disliked about racing. They had a quote from me in the Thoroughbred Record once when they asked me about the difference between me and Wayne Lukas, and I jokingly said, 'My horses make as much as Wayne's do but his horses do it in one year or two years and it takes mine five years to do it.' We always left something in the well for the next year. Nowadays if you don't get every penny out of the horse, they move them on to someone else. That's not me.”
Skiffington said he doesn't spend much time in the saddle these days, as his years of riding have left him with something of a bad back. He is still hands-on at Catomine Farm, doing daily barn chores and coaching riders like grand prix show jumper Erynn Ballard. He plays golf three times a week and says he counts himself as lucky to have spent 30 years on the track – and lucky to have left when he did.
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2019 Paulick Report.