By Art Petrosemolo
Veteran New Jersey thoroughbred trainer John Mazza and owner Rosemarie Shockley are getting close to an answer for their $64,000 question.
After two years of careful handling, good food, vitamins, visits to the vet, romping in the paddock and Florida training, Mazza and Shockley soon will know if their group of Holly Crest thoroughbreds have what it takes to succeed in the sport of kings.
Two-year-old gray filly Rainbow At Midnite and her six stablemates will relocate from Florida’s Circle S ranch to Monmouth Park soon for final race-ready preparations before their first start. Midnite’s sister Holy Rainbow, a three-year-old, has run well at Florida’s Gulfstream Park with two solid third-place finishes. It has pleased Mazza and Shockley and has given them hope for Midnite.
Mazza, who has trained Vincent Annaralla’s horses at Holly Crest Farm in Locust, for years, says, “training is not an exact science. Everyone goes about it a little different. But with correct breeding, proper handling and good training, you could – if the horse has a competitive spirit – have a fast and successful thoroughbred.”
Translated, fast and successful means capable of succeeding in allowance and even stakes races and not missing a paycheck! “If the horse just doesn’t have the speed or the heart to be a winner,” continues Mazza, “then you hope the genes are good so that he or she might pass it along to offspring.”
Thoroughbred training is a long and expensive process. Horses are foaled in the winter (hopefully January to March) and grow under the watchful eye of the broodmare and the farm staff. Food, care and surroundings all contribute to early growth as horses stay with their mothers for most of their first year. (Every thoroughbred ages one year on Jan. 1.)
During its second year, the thoroughbred, now called a yearling, continues to grow and mature with other yearlings spending the warm months in grassy paddocks. As they turn two, trainers and owners decide when and if the yearling will be broke and readied for the track. There are special trainers and farms in the southern United States that specialize in getting these feisty fillies and colts to mature before the final exam at a racetrack a few months away.
Third generation trainer Tim Kelly is preparing the Holly Crest hopefuls for racing this year at Circle S Ranch in Florida horse country about a half-hour from Gulfstream Park. Kelly says when the two year olds arrive at the farm – usually in December – they spend the first month getting used to people and being touched and handled. “We brush them, talk to them, clean their feet and bathe them daily,” he says. “These horses have spent the first two years of their lives growing and playing with minimum human contact.”
Kelly then begins to get each thoroughbred comfortable with the racing equipment including saddle cloth, saddle and bridle. “This is the first time these animals have had anything in their mouths,” he says, “and it isn’t natural.”
It could be as long as eight weeks in the training program before a thoroughbred feels the weight of an exercise rider on its back and it doesn’t like it. Says Kelly, “Anything on a horse’s back is a predator and the horse will try to buck him off in self defense.” The phrase “breaking horses” comes from getting the horse to break the habit of resisting being ridden.
The maturing but still feisty two year olds train six days a week and start by learning to walk, jog and gallop in a round pen, attached to a tether and then under the hands of the exercise rider. The thoroughbred then learns how to respond to the rider’s steering through the bridle by walking and jogging in figure eights and other patterns in a larger pen.
But it isn’t all work, all day, says Mazza; two year olds spend the afternoons enjoying Florida weather grazing in large, shaded paddocks.
Once the two year old is schooled, Kelly moves them to the training track. At Circle S, the oval is one-half mile with a starting chute and starting gate. “The surface is deep and soft,” says Mazza, “which allows the horses to develop bone and muscle.” The two year olds train un-shoed until their feet reach adult size in early spring and they may only have their front feet shoed to start.
Horses work in groups. At Circle S, they are trained in pairs. “We have horses gallop in front of each other so the trailing horse gets used to sand in its face,” Kelly explains. They also gallop beside each other so they get used to running in close quarters and they change positions during each session, each day.
Mazza and Shockley make the trip to Circle S each week to watch the two year olds and confer with Kelly on their training. Mazza can tell when a “baby” (as he calls them) is progressing as expected. “You can tell the way they walk, jog, gallop and carry themselves,” he says.
It’s all about bringing a horse along at the right pace, Mazza feels. “I am old school,” he smiles, “and I take the extra time to get the two year old ready. I only have one chance with each horse to do it right and I don’t want to rush it.” Mazza wants to see a two year old come back from a mile gallop unwinded and ready for more. When Holly Crest horses arrive at Monmouth Park in April, Mazza says he continues to bring them along slowly until he is sure they are ready for their first race.
Two year olds are not timed while in the breaking process. Trainers won’t have any idea of what speed these horses have and whether they might be better for short or long races until they “breeze” (gallop) 5/8 of a mile later this spring at their home track. It’s then that trainers will begin to get the answer to the $64K question on whether these young thoroughbreds have what it takes. The first final exam – a maiden race against other two year olds for a purse – comes soon after. And only then will Mazza and Shockley get their first real answer to whether they have a winner.
Art Petrosemolo will follow Rainbow At Midnite when she returns to Monmouth Park in April and will be at the rail when she goes to the starting gate for her first race.