Profile: Mike Stidham

Mike Stidham By Bill Heller How do you reconcile a win-only mentality in a profession where a 25 percent success rate is as good as it gets? “I struggle with it to this very day,” trainer Mike Stidham said. “If I expect a horse to win and he doesn’t, I don’t want anybody to be around me for a little time. I’ve always been a very competitive person. I’m an action junkie who loves competing and I want to win. It’s not the greatest way to live because it’s impossible to do.” Fortunately for the 59-year-old conditioner, his horses have been winning more often than ever in his 38-year-old career as he builds a national presence after winning his first training title at the Fair Grounds in 2016, the same year he finished 36th overall in the country by earnings, with $3,747,766. That remains his most successful year to date thanks to a career-high 105 victories from 608 starts. Those numbers are remarkable considering he was almost forced out of the business when he won just six races in 1989 and three in 1990. Yet now, as he has his whole life, he wants more. He wants better. “I’m the kind of person who’s hard on myself,” Stidham said. “I always want a reason why. ‘Why didn’t he run good? What did I do wrong?’ I’m a very self-conscious person who thinks a lot, worries a lot, and is a perfectionist. In this business, there’s not a lot of perfection.” That didn’t prevent the late Hall of Fame jockey Bill Hartack, a close friend of Stidham’s family who was a mentor and like a kind uncle to Stidham, from feeling the same way. “My mother would cook dinner and he would come over,” Stidham said. “One night, I asked my dad why Bill was so upset. My dad said, ‘He rode seven and only won five.’ When he was riding, he expected to win every race. When he didn’t, he wasn’t easy to be around. He was very serious. That’s why he was so successful.” Hartack, though, just like Stidham, had a softer side. “He was two different people,” Stidham said. “When he came to our home on days he wasn’t riding, he was like a little kid. He really was. He took us to amusement parks and played with us. I think that was his release.” Stidham’s now-84-year-old mother, Anita, agreed: “They would go to the movies. He’d take a lot of Michael’s friends to Disney. He’d take a day off and take all the kids to the movies all day long. They used to do fun things.” After Hartack passed away in 2007, Stidham and several other friends established the Bill Hartack Charitable Foundation, which rewards each year’s winning Kentucky Derby jockey with a ring. Ticket sales for the event and ads in the program raise money, and the winning jockey chooses which charity he wants to help. Already, donations have been made to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, the Winners Foundation, and the Racing Employee Assistance Program. At the event, the Stidhams bring and display Hartack’s five Kentucky Derby trophies that he left them. The Foundation gives Stidham’s mother another reason to smile about her son. “I couldn’t be any prouder,” she said. “He excels in everything he does and he’s a good person.” And his over-competitive drive? “That I believe he got from Bill,” she said. “Michael was around him a lot growing up. He picked up some of Bill’s traits. Michael was very competitive, all his life, in everything he did. He always wants to win.” Asked how many times people have told him to calm down or lighten up, Stidham said, “A million,” and laughed before continuing, “Usually every day with Hillary.” Hillary Pridham, Stidham’s English-born assistant trainer and exercise rider since 1999 and life partner since 2001, put it this way: “We look at things a little differently.  I’m always seeing the glass half-full. He’s half-empty. That will always be that way.” Yet they are lights out as a team. “It works,” Hillary said. “You’ve got to be on the same page.” Stidham calls Hillary “the backbone of the operation.” Stidham inherited a lifetime with horses from his father, George, a jockey who rode in West Virginia and New Jersey in the mid-1950s and ‘60s before becoming a trainer, and later a business manager for Hartack. He also filled in as Hartack’s temporary jockey agent when the rider fired the previous one. Stidham is the youngest of three children. His brother Steve, who was the track photographer at Hollywood Park, is a photographer living near Houston. Stidham’s sister, Cyndi, is an esthetician (facialist) in North Hill, California. Born in New Jersey, Stidham was raised in south Florida and lived just three miles from Hialeah. “My father had a very close relationship and worked for Bill Hartack,” Stidham said. “I learned the basics of the racetrack from them. My dad started training in South Florida, and that’s when I learned the business from the bottom up.” Thanks to Hartack, Stidham got to visit with members of the Oakland Raiders, whose owner, Al Davis, lived by the slogan, “Just win, baby.” It was a perfect fit for Stidham, who remains a huge Raiders fan and lists Raiders offensive line coach and former Vikings head coach Mike Tice as one of his clients. “One winter, Bill had some Raiders come to dinner at our house,” Stidham said. “One of the players was Jim Otto (a Hall of Famer many consider one of the best centers of all time). I’m a kid and playing football. How cool was that? They signed my football. That kind of thing is impressive. I was 12 or 13. My stable colors are black and white. I wanted black and silver for the Oakland Raiders.” As much as he loves the Raiders and enjoyed their resurgence last year, his love for animals is profound. “He had two dogs growing up, Labradors, Bow and Arrow,” his mother said. “He got them as puppies. He just treated them like they were friends. We got a doghouse. They wouldn’t go into the doghouse. He’d go into the doghouse to show them how to do it.” Stidham confessed, “The sad part about that is that it’s a true story. I was probably less than a teenager. You got to show them the way in.” Asked if the dogs laughed when he did it, Stidham said, “They were laughing like hell.” When he was 13 his parents bought him a Palomino pony, which Stidham named Mr. H, a monogram Hartack used back then. Well, as cool as a visit by a Hall of Famer to his house was, Mr. H gave Stidham an even bigger thrill. They were in a movie together – after a dye job. In 1979, a remake of the 1931 Academy Award winning film The Champ was made starring Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway, and Ricky Schroder – who would, at the age of nine, win a Golden Globe Award for “Best New Male Star of the Year.” Stidham recounted, “We were stabled at Hialeah and they came to our barn and asked if they could use our barn for the movie. And they get into a scene where the horse is going to run, and it’s Flamingo Day, and everything is pink. They asked if we could use food coloring to change my Palomino to pink.” With the help of a hairdresser, Mr. H turned pink. “He’d be leading the horses out for a race in the movie,” Stidham continued. “I got to ride the pony leading the post parade out. They used my dad and myself and some others in the barn in the movie as extras. My dad actually rode as a jockey in one of the simulated races. He was Jockey No. 1.” When Stidham graduated from high school, his parents gave him a racehorse, Regal Row. “But it didn’t turn out good,” his mother said. “He ran the horse once and after he came back, he was hanging his head in the stall. Each day he got worse and worse.” Stidham explained, “He got really sick, really sick and wound up with colitis. We went through this long process trying to save him. This horse was everything to me.” His mother had to get written permission to be allowed on the backstretch, which she did so the two of them could sleep in a small veterinary clinic room overnight as the horse’s condition worsened. “That’s how he was with animals,” his mother said. After a week, they knew the horse would never get well. “Finally, it was his horse,” she said. “He was the one to decide to put him down.” He did. “That was a sad story,” he said. “It was a lesson for how tough this business can be.” Stidham wanted to keep learning lessons at the racetrack, not in college, but his father would have none of that. “The whole time I was growing up, my dad struggled in racing,” Stidham said. “He told me and my brother, ‘You’re not going to be a jockey. You’re not going to be a trainer. You’re going to be a vet so you have options in your life. So you don’t end up like me.’ “He was looking out for us,” Stidham said. “So I went to a junior college in Dade County. I wanted to get out of there. All I wanted to do was be at the track, but I stayed for two years. Then I went to the track. I became his assistant.” He quickly ventured on his own with castoffs from his father’s stable. Stidham was 21. “As a young guy, you screw up a lot,” he said. He calls his handling of Brabbler, a horse he and a friend bought for $1,000, “one of his worst mistakes.” The horse made 21 starts for Stidham and his father, posting three wins, five seconds, and two thirds and then was claimed for $7,500. “I’ll never forget,” Stidham said. “I was mad. That was my horse. A few races later, I claimed him back for $4,000. When I did, he was in bad shape.” Brabbler made just one more start, finishing sixth in a $5,000 claimer, and never raced again. “I learned you don’t let your heart lead you,” Stidham said. “You have to treat it as a business. That’s when I learned to separate the business aspect from the emotional part. Those kinds of lessons you learn the hard way.” Stidham’s early career was jumpstarted by Harold Goodman, a Houston businessman whose company, Goodman Manufacturing, would become the second largest heating, ventilating, and air conditioning operation in the country, currently with some 4,000 employees. Goodman had horses with Stidham’s father, and he asked him one day if it was okay to take his son out of town, first to Louisiana then to California. “He wanted to race for big purses and see if his horses were good enough for California,” Stidham said. Stidham’s father said yes and wished his son good luck. On the way to California, Stidham stopped at Louisiana Downs. “(Goodman) had two good horses, Me Good Man and Viterbo,” Stidham said. “I wound up winning stakes with both of them. I won the first stakes race ever run on grass at Louisiana Downs with Me Good Man (on July 4th, 1980).” That success prompted Stidham to write his father a letter. “I thanked him for his advice, all the things he taught me,” Stidham said. “I had success right away. I wanted to thank my dad.” Stidham’s stable moved on to California, where Stidham quickly realized the local training competition included the likes of Hall of Famers Charlie Whittingham, D. Wayne Lukas (then a future Hall of Famer), and Laz Barrera. Thanks to his father and Hartack, Stidham got an interview with Max Gluck, who used a handful of trainers for his Elmendorf Farm stock. “I had the opportunity to have lunch with him and he just hired me,” Stidham said. “He gave me six horses. It was fantastic. He was an old school owner who everyone respected.” Another future Hall of Fame trainer, Richard Mandella, who had trained for Gluck, offered Stidham advice. “He says to me, ‘He’ll try to bulldoze you, to have you do everything his way. You have to be able to stand up to him,’” Stidham said. “I thought, I can’t use that advice now in my life. I’m 23 years old. I couldn’t stand up to him. Later in my life, I could respect what Mandella told me. Now we’re best of friends.” Then, for the second time, Goodman gave Stidham an extraordinary boost. “He could see the future,” Stidham said. “In the mid-‘80s, he said, ‘Texas is going to get pari-mutuel racing back. I want to have a stallion I can stand in Texas. I’m going to send you – this is when Bobby Frankel was importing horses from France – to France. Find me a horse with a pedigree.’” Stidham journeyed to France and chose Manzotti, a winning three-year-old son of Nijinsky II out of the Tom Rolfe mare Shufleur. Manzotti struggled early in his racing career, winning just one of his first 12 starts, then at five in 1988 took his game to another level, winning four of his final nine starts – including three Grade 3 stakes races – with three seconds and one third. He earned a total of $441,170 in North America. Accordingly, Stidham’s earnings topped a half-million dollars that year for the first time. Stidham’s rising success was short-circuited when Manzotti was retired to a stud career in Texas and many of his clients decided to drop out of the business because of the economy. “It’s 1989 and I’ve got five horses left,” Stidham said. “I said, ‘Here it is.’ What my dad told me was going to happen was happening. I was married. I had one daughter. I was $60,000 in debt.” Stidham won six races in 1989 and half as many the following year. “You want to know the truth?” Stidham asked. “I took a job throwing newspapers from my car at 3 a.m. in the morning, I’d get done around 4:30 or five, go to the barn, and with no help, did the work myself. I’m dead. How am I going to survive this? Who’s going to want to hire a guy with three or four horses?” Stidham saw only one logical step to stay solvent: head north. “The only thing I could do was leave southern California and go to northern California and ask trainers to send me their second-string horses,” he said. “Dick Mandella, John Sadler, and a couple other trainers sent me horses. After three months, I was up to 30 horses. But northern California was a dead end.” When Manzotti went to stud, a superstar, Two Altazano, emerged from his limited first crop of foals. Goodman’s homebred filly had just won the Grade 3 Fair Grounds Oaks as three-year-old in 1994 when Stidham took over her training from William Stice, and she went on to win the Grade 2 Fantasy; the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks by 6½ lengths, to provide Stidham with his first win at that level; and the Grade 2 Monmouth Oaks. After Two Altazano’s victory in the Fair Grounds Oaks, Goodman told Stidham that he thought Manzotti was going to be a successful stallion. “He asked me, ‘Would you come to Texas and be my private trainer?’” Stidham said. “I wanted to get out of northern California anyway. I signed a two-year contract. I went there and we won the Coaching Club American Oaks. We just won a Grade 1 for an owner who owns the stallion, the mare, and the horse. Of all my accomplishments, that’s the one I’m the most proud of. I’m a year into my contract. Manzotti’s yearlings are looking good. Things are going great.” Then Goodman died of a heart attack. “Here I am in Texas,” Stidham said. “I was only training for Mr. Goodman. I wasn’t looking for outside clients. I know nobody. I’ve got seven months left in my contract.” Goodman’s sons and daughters decided to stay in racing. “They agreed to pay out my contract for the other seven months and let me take on outside clients,” Stidham said. “It was great for them to be that kind. And I started to pick up outside clients. People had seen how I had done.” Then Hillary Pridham and the internet came into Stidham’s life. They have kept him on a roll. Hillary had no background in racing, but began riding a pony when she was three. She was 11 when she was placed on a Thoroughbred for the first time. “That was it,” she said. Six years later, she went to a technical college in England with a management program for Thoroughbred racing. “It gives you a background with everything, similar to Darley’s program,” she said. She came to the U.S. and spent 10 years working for trainer Noel Hickey at Arlington Park. Winters were spent at the Fair Grounds. Pridham decided she needed a change and parted ways with Hickey. “Mike was expanding,” she said. “He had heard that I was quitting. He asked me to come work for him.” Before she joined his operation, Stidham had never posted a million dollars in earnings. With her in 1999, he won $2.1 million. “There are a lot of people in the business who will say it was her, but the ball was already rolling in the right direction,” Stidham said. “I hadn’t ever needed an assistant before then. Hillary had a huge part in keeping the ball rolling. She’s a fantastic horsewoman.” She understands that they don’t share the same feeling when one of their horses finished second. “When you’re on them every day, you have more compassion,” she said. “When a horse runs his eyeballs out for you and finishes second, I say the horse ran great. Mike looks at it as we’re second. We didn’t win. We’re both very honest. The only time I saw him happy when we were second was when Willcox Inn finished second to Wise Dan in the Shadwell Mile at Keeneland. (At 48-1, Willcox Inn was 2¼ lengths behind two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan in the 2012 Shadwell Mile.) We were more than two lengths better than the rest of the field. He ran huge. Mike was actually happy.” Willcox Inn – whose two-year-old debut resulted in a maiden win over future Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom in second – kept both of them happy. Purchased as a yearling for $50,000, he topped $1 million in earnings. Some 20 years ago, Stidham’s secretary, Linda Maxwell, told him she was going to get an email address for him. “What’s an email address?” he asked. She said, “You’re going to thank me for this years later.” Indeed. “What I saw was that Hall of Fame trainers, guys as big as you could be, these guys were sitting there with no horses,” Stidham said. “These were the greatest horsemen and these guys had no horses. At that moment, I realized that they were great horsemen but bad communicators. I started getting clients who were upset with great trainers who didn’t let their clients know that their horses were racing or how they were training. It was right about the time that computers were starting.” He came to a conclusion: “I realized that times had changed. There are a lot of good horsemen out there. I realized there was more to racing and training a successful stable and a lot of it has to do with communicating with owners. They want to know what’s going on with their investments. They don’t want to just get a bill at the end of the month without knowing how their horses are doing.” To that end, Stidham has a website and sends owners videos of their horses working. “That really helped me get over the hump of being successful,” he said. “That’s just a sign of the times. You either get with that or you’re in real trouble.” Now with a stable of more than 100 horses currently based at Fair Hill in Maryland, Stidham said his most important belief is “training each horse individually and having a program that works for that horse. You want to achieve a level of fitness. To get to that, you have to keep them mentally sound and physically sound. You want to do enough with a horse without overdoing it. You have to know what works for one horse.” He knows enough to have won 1,738 races with earnings of more than $52 million through the end of June. One of his clients is Tice, the Oakland Raiders offensive line coach who played tight end in the NFL for 15 years. “Years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to Mike when I was down in New Orleans,” Tice said. “He’s a big Raiders fan. We just hit it off. He and Hillary have become friends with me and my wife Diane. I think the main thing in horse racing is running horses where they belong. I think he does a great job of placing horses, especially on turf. He’s a great trainer.” Tice; Joel Quenneville, the head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks in the National Hockey League; Mike Pegram; and Marty Nixon bought a two-year-old for $150,000 in April of 2015 for Stidham to train. They named the son of Discreet Cat Gridiron Cat. Compromised by an injury, he won one of seven starts before being claimed for $30,000. “The group wants to do another horse with Mike,” Tice said. That would be fantastic for Stidham. “Mike invites me to whatever games I want to see,” Stidham said. “Two of my three daughters, Samantha (27) and Stephanie (23), live in San Jose, so it’s a great reason to visit. My youngest daughter, Camille (17), lives outside Denver. My daughters are very important for me.” John Adger, the former racing manager for Bob and Janice McNair’s Stonerside Stable, which was sold in 2008, has been sending Stidham horses for years. “I met Mike through a mutual friend of ours, kind of his mentor, Harold Goodman,” Adger said. “When we started Stonerside in 1994, I asked Mike if he’d be interested in taking a handful of horses.” Adger is more than pleased with the results: “Hillary is one of the best horsemen I’ve ever met. She gets on horses. She’s outstanding. Mike spots his horses well. He puts horses where they belong.” Stidham and Hillary have reevaluated where they belong. They spend winters in New Orleans at the Fair Grounds, where each own a house. Spring and summers had been spent at Arlington Park in Chicago for 20 years, but they moved their operation to Fair Hill in Maryland this spring and live in an apartment there. That allows them to race at Delaware, Belmont, and even Woodbine. Their client base has expanded. Godolphin sent a string of horses for them to train two years ago. “People are starting to take us seriously,” Hillary said. Stidham, who always takes his craft seriously, has taken the time to appreciate his journey: “When I think back on it, I’m amazed I was able to survive and continue in the business. I’ve been helped by a lot of great people.”  
I’m a very self-conscious person who thinks a lot, worries a lot, and is a perfectionist. In this business, there’s not a lot of perfection.
 

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How do you reconcile a win-only mentality in a profession where a 25 percent success rate is as good as it gets?

“I struggle with it to this very day,” trainer Mike Stidham said. “If I expect a horse to win and he doesn’t, I don’t want anybody to be around me for a little time. I’ve always been a very competitive person. I’m an action junkie who loves competing and I want to win. It’s not the greatest way to live because it’s impossible to do.”

Fortunately for the 59-year-old conditioner, his horses have been winning more often than ever in his 38-year-old career as he builds a national presence after winning his first training title at the Fair Grounds in 2016, the same year he finished 36th overall in the country by earnings, with $3,747,766. That remains his most successful year to date thanks to a career-high 105 victories from 608 starts.

Those numbers are remarkable considering he was almost forced out of the business when he won just six races in 1989 and three in 1990.

Yet now, as he has his whole life, he wants more. He wants better.

“I’m the kind of person who’s hard on myself,” Stidham said. “I always want a reason why. ‘Why didn’t he run good? What did I do wrong?’ I’m a very self-conscious person who thinks a lot, worries a lot, and is a perfectionist. In this business, there’s not a lot of perfection.”

That didn’t prevent the late Hall of Fame jockey Bill Hartack, a close friend of Stidham’s family who was a mentor and like a kind uncle to Stidham, from feeling the same way.

“My mother would cook dinner and he would come over,” Stidham said. “One night, I asked my dad why Bill was so upset. My dad said, ‘He rode seven and only won five.’ When he was riding, he expected to win every race. When he didn’t, he wasn’t easy to be around. He was very serious. That’s why he was so successful.”

Hartack, though, just like Stidham, had a softer side. “He was two different people,” Stidham said. “When he came to our home on days he wasn’t riding, he was like a little kid. He really was. He took us to amusement parks and played with us. I think that was his release.”

Stidham’s now-84-year-old mother, Anita, agreed: “They would go to the movies. He’d take a lot of Michael’s friends to Disney. He’d take a day off and take all the kids to the movies all day long. They used to do fun things.”

After Hartack passed away in 2007, Stidham and several other friends established the Bill Hartack Charitable Foundation, which rewards each year’s winning Kentucky Derby jockey with a ring. Ticket sales for the event and ads in the program raise money, and the winning jockey chooses which charity he wants to help. Already, donations have been made to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, the Winners Foundation, and the Racing Employee Assistance Program. At the event, the Stidhams bring and display Hartack’s five Kentucky Derby trophies that he left them.

The Foundation gives Stidham’s mother another reason to smile about her son. “I couldn’t be any prouder,” she said. “He excels in everything he does and he’s a good person.”

And his over-competitive drive? “That I believe he got from Bill,” she said. “Michael was around him a lot growing up. He picked up some of Bill’s traits. Michael was very competitive, all his life, in everything he did. He always wants to win.”