With spring in full swing, some of horse racing's top runners are just beginning to flex their muscles in their first few starts or workouts of the year. Many of the sport's top performers will be fresh off a respite at the training center that many have called “Club Med for horses.”
The slogan of Payson Park in Indiantown, Fla., is “Happy horses win,” and it's a philosophy its management takes seriously. It's even their web address. Originally begun in the 1950s as St. Lucie Training Center, Payson spans 400 acres and includes one-mile turf and dirt tracks, European galloping and hacking trails and lots of turnout space.
“What we offer here is very different from the normal training center, in that it is truly a training center,” said facility owner Virginia Kraft Payson. “It is not an approximation of a backstretch, as some of our competition which deals in numbers. You won't find an inch of concrete anywhere here.”
Payson is proud to say that the facility has played host to the same group of top-class trainers since she took over the training center in 1980. In fact, morning training hours look like a Hall of Fame clinic, with Bill Mott aboard his pony and Shug McGaughey a few feet away watching his horses from along the outside rail. Christophe Clement jokes from atop a trail railing that they “train by committee” here as Roger Attfield's trainees saunter by.
“You can do everything here,” said Clement. “You can train them up to a race, which people have been doing very successfully for many years. You can give them a break and bring them back so they're ready for Keeneland and New York.”
One thing Payson's trainers have in common besides the harsh climates in their northern home bases is an appreciation of downtime. The relaxation comes in for the horses because of the change of pace.
“The track closes whenever we want it to close,” said Clement. “Just the fact that you can take your time basically means you make less mistakes. The more time you spend on horses, the better.”
Most racetracks don't have the space to allow for turnout, relegating horses to their stalls for most of the day. A few hours of free movement and different scenery can prove calming for many of them, as can a trip along the gallop lanes, which run through a tree line and across a field behind the main training track. Some also benefit from long conditioning jogs on the lanes, or just the opportunity to work without the left-hand bias of the track.
Trainers say one of the biggest differences at Payson is the absence of the “racetrack mentality”; there's no race card driving a tight schedule for the maintenance crew, no racing secretary making calls to trainers to fill races, and there's less bustle of vans hauling horses to and from racetracks (Gulfstream is about 90 minutes away).
“You don't get the call from the racing office to force you or push you ('force' may be a touch too strong but 'push' is not strong enough) to go in a race,” said Clement. “We run when we're ready. Every decision can be made for the best of the horse.”
The barns have ample space in between, both for walking and grazing, and provides horses with less activity and noise right outside their stalls.
For some of the season's graded stakes competitors, a southward journey to Payson marks the start of a winter vacation, followed by a gradual return to work. Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, who got a rest following a fifth-place effort in the 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic, has spent the intervening months growing and eating, and returned to Clement's barn in early March. Although a first start back has not yet been chosen, the 4-year-old will likely be pointing toward a few of the summer's top prizes.
Tonalist joins a list of prestigious Payson “campers” as they're called, past and present. Alumni include Drosselmeyer, Royal Delta, Gio Ponti, Cigar, Easy Goer, Perfect Shirl, St. Jovite, and In Summation.
Payson wasn't always a brilliant green haven for Thoroughbreds. When Virginia Kraft Payson purchased the property with her husband Charles Shipman Payson, the place had fallen into ruin. It was originally engineered by Michel Phipps, Bull Hancock, Townsend Martin and C.T. Chenery but got lost in the shuffle following their deaths. Payson told Forbes in 2013 that there were cattle and alligators wandering the racetrack—someone would actually have to go out in the mornings to chase lingering wildlife away before training could begin.
The Paysons spent months haggling over the price with the lawyer who ended up with the property. When they finally succeeded in purchasing, they set the ambitious goal of opening in two months. It took 100 people working daily, but on Oct. 1 of 1980, the training center with its on-site veterinary clinic, 76 paddocks, 499 stalls, and 62 dormitory rooms, opened to trainers. It was full from the start and carried a wait list until the economic downturn in 2008.
“I don't think it was a conscious decision to keep it very small,” said Kraft. “Over the years, I've had any number of pressures to build more barns. There's certainly enough land. We have 405 acres, which encompasses all of Payson Park, but we probably could fit everything that has to do with training horses on 100 acres.”
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