Mike McMullen joined the racing scene in 1987 as a tall, lanky teenager who possessed a heavyweight's hands and a puppy dog's demeanor as he tagged along behind Jim, his older brother. He quickly became known as “Pup,” a moniker he cannot shake, even after recently being named head starter for the New York Racing Association.
“If you call my name,” said McMullen, “I most likely won't turn around.”
When a nickname fits at the track, it most likely sticks – even to a 47-year-old man elevated to an important position after 26 years of skillful gate work at NYRA.
“Pup” still works especially well for McMullen because he is the latest disciple of natural horsemanship, an approach that emphasizes appealing to a horse's natural instincts instead of employing methods that may instill fear or inflict pain.
Natural horsemanship was introduced to NYRA in the early 1990s by then head starter Bob Duncan. He added McMullen to a crew that Duncan admitted had been “pretty rough,” often resorting to the use of shanks, buggy whips and blindfolds.
“Most of the time, it was about being more dominant and gaining submission from a horse,” Duncan said. “In my mind, there was a degree of attrition because of our lack of skills. There would be horses that weren't responding to the type of training we were doing or horses who would refuse from the gate or sour or not produce as they were expected to.
“They'd be doing what we wanted, but they were not very happy. That encouraged me to look elsewhere.”
Duncan studied from advocates of natural horsemanship such as the late Ray Hunt, Monty Roberts and Pat Parelli. He looked to hire those who could combine patience with a gentle touch.
“Pup” was perfect.
“He had wonderful, light hands and that's what works so well with natural horsemanship,” Duncan said. “It's not about roughing a horse up. It's about getting things done subtly. I often say it's about handling a horse so the horse doesn't know he's being handled.”
McMullen knew nothing about Thoroughbreds when a call from his brother Jim changed his life. He had just graduated from Hinsdale Central High School in Hinsdale, Ill., a Chicago suburb, and planned to attend college. His brother was working for their uncle, P.G. Johnson, a New York trainer who later would go to induction in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. Johnson urgently needed help with a string of horses at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md.
The younger McMullen took a summer job that ultimately developed into a career.
“We needed everything,” Jim said, “and I threw him into the deep end.”
The “deep end” meant caring for a large number of horses, including a notoriously bad actor named Infantry.
“It was like walking into a lion's den,” Jim said.
The strapping chestnut colt would bite, kick, and attempt to pin the younger McMullen against the wall. Those early, painful lessons were never forgotten.
“You didn't dictate what was going on in there,” McMullen said. “You worked around him and the way he behaved.”
He began applying what he learned as a full-time member of NYRA's gate crew in 1991. He takes notes on each horse that is schooled in the morning. He learned over time that a pat on the head can work far better than a blindfold. A snap of the fingers may be all a horse needs to willingly step into his assigned slot rather than a stinging lash from a buggy whip.
“Ultimately it's your way,” McMullen said, “but you want them to think they're doing it their way.”
McMullen described gate work when he first started at NYRA as “more of a manhandling thing.” Duncan's fascination with natural horsemanship, though, brought new ideas that were continually refined after Roy Williamson succeeded Duncan as head starter.
According to Williamson, the head starter for the past 10 years, the use of certain principles of natural horsemanship creates a safer environment for humans and horses.
“For the crew, we've had fewer injuries,” he said. “It's better for the horses. They understand what we're trying to do. They are more relaxed behind the starting gate. They are better in the gate. It's just better all around.”
Williamson strongly recommended McMullen to Martin Panza, NYRA's senior vice president of racing operations, to succeed him. He described him as a “natural” for the job.
Williamson said of McMullen: “He's able to work with difficult horses, get them to relax, get them to focus.”
Panza said McMullen's well-known abilities “made it very easy to hire from within.”
McMullen oversees a 15-person crew dedicated to providing what Panza describes as “consistency for the gambling public.” The group historically holds up well under scrutiny that comes with NYRA's hosting the Belmont Stakes and other nationally televised Grade 1 races.
McMullen emphasizes the importance of an incident-free start, no matter the quality of horses involved. All must receive the same respect and careful handling.
“Whether it's a Grade 1 race or a claiming race,” he said, “you're doing the same job.”
Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.
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