Ed Halpern's observations on being a horse trainer
Training thoroughbred horses is a wonderful occupation. Many who quit training miss it for the remainder of their life. Why then is it that the community of thoroughbred horse trainers seems so unhappy? Even the most successful of trainers walks around in the morning head down. During training hours, if you engage in conversation with a trainer, it will most likely be a serious conversation. In trackside conversations, trainers can be smiling and engaging, but there is usually a sense that their minds are on other things. I also observe in many an anger that lies just below the surface waiting to reveal itself at the slightest provocation. Sure there is humorous repartee, but it is covered by the shadow of failure. This is a subject I have wanted to look at for a long time, but I have hesitated because it always sounds like whining.
Certainly, we have nothing to whine about. We work in some of the most beautiful settings to be found anywhere: Del Mar, Santa Anita, Keeneland, and Saratoga. We work outdoors. We work with animals. Unlike doctors or judges, our decisions are not life and death. Unlike our young soldiers in Iraq, we don't have to deal with snipers or bombs hidden along our paths. Unlike stockbrokers, our decisions are not likely to bring financial ruin or even great harm to our clients. Unlike criminal lawyers, our mistakes are not likely to end in a jail sentence for a client. The investments made in racing by most of our clients are made with disposable income. If a life is changed because of what we do, most likely it is because someone hits the jackpot or spent unforgettable moments in the winners circle. So, why the long faces?
Training horses successfully is a very difficult pursuit. I once told a friend I was going to become a thoroughbred horse trainer and he observed, "Why would you want to go into a profession that is programmed for failure?" (Some would say I have lived up to his expectations.) He was right. Very few trainers are financially successful. He was right, even that small fraternity of trainers who make a decent living face some kind of failure every day. And he was dead on right because even the superstars lose 5 or 6 times for each time they win. Even Hall of Fame trainers can lose 9 out of 10 times and do it year after year after year.
Training horses is a very demanding pursuit. Once in a great while, a trainer gets to give an owner good news, but most of the time, it is a trainer's fate to convey bad news. It is very hard to get used to doing that. One is required to get up early, work long hours, work seven days a week, forgo vacations, and give up time with one's family. The job requires attention to every detail. Because of the trainer-insurer rule, a trainer without any culpability can find himself on the wrong end of a medication violation and be subject to fines, disqualifications, public ridicule, and humiliation. In addition thereto, a trainer has to depend on the skills and loyalty of grooms, hotwalkers, exercise riders, and jockeys. In many cases, the program that the trainer has outlined is in the hands of others and totally outside the control of the trainer. The best laid plans for a workout can go totally awry; a well-planned slow workout can go fast, and a well-planned fast workout can go slow. After months of preparation, a race can be a fiasco caused by other horses, other jockeys, or one's own jockey, and all in the course of a few minutes.
Finally, training horses is a heartbreaking pursuit. Some mornings, a shed row will resemble a hospital emergency room. Each morning brings new injuries, new illnesses, and a plethora of other problems. Even if racing or training injuries are avoided, horses have nothing to do all day but find ways to hurt themselves. Sooner or later, they usually do. It matters not if a horse is a superstar or a cheap claimer, a career can end in the blink of an eye. Therefore, it is a trainer's lot to live while always holding his or her breath, at least a little bit.
It is no wonder that, on the surface, so many trainers seem so unhappy or overwhelmed with worry. But few would give it up. Many are octogenarians before they retire. Some breathe their last breath in the barn area. There is no occupation that offers higher highs or lower lows. Ultimately, the moments of joy outweigh the hours of disappointment. There is enough happiness in those moments to make it all worthwhile. For those who dedicate their lives to the training of horses, satisfaction is found in the entire process. Catch a trainer away from the stress of the workplace for a few minutes and you are likely to find that he or she is one of the happiest people you know.