Past The Wire
By Jonathan Stettin
Cream Rises to the Top
We have spoken a lot recently about the rewards possible in the Sport of Kings and how those rewards manifest themselves in various forms within the industry. From breeding to pin hooking, to training to racing, and, of course, wagering, the rewards can be quite satisfying. We’ve also spoken about the gratification, and often simultaneous financial rewards, that come with spotting talent early. Tonalist was a good example of that and how it can pay off on the racetrack and at the windows.
Along those lines, this week “Past the Wire” has the privilege of taking its readers inside a barn whose commitment to excellence and professionalism caught the attention of one of the sport’s powerhouse stables and landed a very bright and talented young man one of the most coveted training jobs in the business.
Zayat Stables, led by the father and son team of Ahmed and Justin Zayat, is one of the premier racing operations in the game today. They consistently compete at the highest levels of the game and do so with class, transparency, and a commitment to excel that is evident in all they do. During times when the game is argued to be in decline and has its share of chronicled issues, an outfit like this brings hope for the sport’s survival and even its potential to thrive, as it once did. We’ve seen the Zayat’s share information regarding their horses on social media, demonstrate the best of care to a sick and injured race horse, put the horse first and retire them when conditions warranted and even invite fans right into the winner’s circle with them.
One need only look at the recent success of horses like Zensational, Bodemeister, Nehro, Pioneer of the Nile, Justin Phillip and Paynter to see this is one dangerous outfit on the biggest of stages of Thoroughbred racing. What makes this outfit special, however, is not limited to the horses but extends into the ways in which they benefit and promote the sport. When Bodemeister ran winning races in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, only to be beaten by I’ll Have Another, they came right back and gave us one heck of a Triple Crown streak, only to be second again with Paynter in the Belmont. While this was a great feat for sure, it was heartbreaking just the same. The Zayats handled it with class, not once complaining but instead exemplifying true sportsmanship. Some current owners could take a lesson from them. I have little doubt this outfit has some classics with its name on them, as well as that of their new young trainer. They deserve it and are proof of the fact that the cream always rises to the top.
When the stable recently decided to move their horses with Steve Asmussen to other barns, it opened the door to one of the premier training jobs in the country, if not the world. There is little question that many trainers would jump at this opportunity, which pretty much assures them of having the stock to compete in the biggest races with regularity. While most racing people expected the Zayats to hire an established trainer with a big name and resume of stakes wins, they, true to their enterprising ways, went in a different direction. They hired a young man named Michael Wilson.
Wilson is just beginning to carve out his legacy in horse racing. While not yet a household name, this man has the background, experience and work ethic, as well as talent, to give young Justin Zayat and his father Ahmed just what they want – the satisfaction of spotting young talent way before the masses.
True to form, Justin was gracious to share his selection thought process with “Past the Wire” for this column. Justin told us that his family knew Michael from when he worked for Bob Baffert, and around horses like Zensational and Pioneer of the Nile. Justin and Ahmed, being hands on and detail oriented, recognized Michael as having the same attributes as they do. They knew he attended Darley’s Flying Start program and felt, with the right ammunition and horses, he could make a name for himself. Michael knew how they worked as a stable, as well, and put a lot of stock into the value of open lines of communication. Last, but not least, Justin, being a young man himself, is always looking for future stars and talent and is not afraid to take a chance on something he believes in.
Michael has the background to succeed as a trainer and really understands the horse. He grew up in Davis, CA, where his father is an equine Veterinarian as well as the Director of the Veterinary Hospital at the University of California, Davis. While his dad was always a fan of the sport, Michael did not gain interest until his father dragged him to see Seabiscuit.
Not surprising with his background, Michael always wanted to work with animals, initially as a zoologist. It was during the summer of his senior year in high school, however, that Michael had an epiphany that revealed to him what it was that he was meant to do. The realization involved an experience with a weanling on a small backyard Thoroughbred farm in Davis.
When nobody could catch the weanling, Michael decided to see if he could gain the young horse’s trust. He took a bucket of grain into the middle of the paddock and went to work. It was there, in that that moment, that his career was actually launched, though at the time nobody knew it. Innately, or perhaps instinctively, showing the patience necessary to work with racehorses, Michael stayed with it. Gradually, the weanling cautiously worked his way over. Eventually, the horse would be eating from Michael’s hand. The connection was made and a future course had been charted. Within days, Michael had the weanling leading on a halter and picking up his feet. The owner of Pfanner farm where this took place recognized talent as well and suggested Michael become a trainer. The light bulb had turned on.
Michael started on the racetrack by walking hots for Marty Jones, before heading to his college classes later in the day. Anyone who has done this knows how tiring and demanding it is. If it doesn’t discourage you and drive you away, then you’ll be on the racetrack forever. After a few months, Marty gave Michael a pony and a horse to groom. The pony’s mane and tail were a mess. So, Michael, still quite green, took a scissor to them both.
From there, Michael went to work as a groom for Richard Mandella. He also worked for Doug O’Neill, Bob Baffert, and spent time with D. Wayne Lukas, Ken McPeek, Jeremy Noseda in England, Danny O’Brien in Australia, and even Godolphin Stables in Dubai. He’s learned from what reads like a who’s who of national and international trainers.
While Michael readily admits he has learned from every outfit he worked with, he believes he probably learned the most while at the Mandella barn. Both Richard and his assistant Angel Vega were like second fathers. Michael absorbed all of the knowledge he could from them. Bob Baffert taught him a lot, as well. Michael says that while the shed rows of Mandella and Baffert are quite different, his own barn uniquely reflects elements of the best of both of the accomplished trainers.
Presently, Michael has 16 horses at his barn and another 10 on the farm. He knows he can comfortably handle more, having had as many as 80 under his care while assistant trainer to Bob Baffert. As assistant, he did not have to master the condition book as he now does. He also wasn’t responsible for dealing with clients. So, he puts his ideal number at 60-80 horses, which is an impressive number given his hands on approach, which has him touching and inspecting his horses daily. That is how he tracks their responses to his training. Still relatively new, Michael is gradually delegating more to his staff, which he thinks very highly of. Obviously, he would know as well as anyone, you’re only as good as your help.
Nothing was handed to Michael, despite his impressive resume. We all know how tough this game is and setting up on the East Coast was probably a disadvantage for him. He started with just two horses and credits people seeing his quality of care and perfectionist attitude as the primary reason for his growth.
When it comes to sales, Michael prefers horses that have a strong steady gallop or nice easy breeze, as opposed to the blistering workouts that have become commonplace. He prefers going to the farms in advance of the sales to get a line on the horses that are going in. He works with his fiancée, who is a veterinarian and bloodstock agent, which essentially affords him three perspectives on a horse: Training, veterinary and bloodstock. In a risky business, that creates something of an edge for their clients.
Michael is of the opinion that hind leg conformation is paramount. The hind end is the engine and dictates how a horse travels.
“Since a thoroughbred carries 60% of their bodyweight on their front legs,” Wilson said, “if they are weak behind, it will exacerbate issues in the front end.”
Michael believes an athlete will take you much further performance wise than a horse that is just well bred. He looks for athleticism in horses but knows how to find value with stallions, as well. Michael excels at identifying stallions before they become popular and their stud fees go up, which is another edge for his clients. Recently, he advised a client with a nice Speightstown mare that he had recommended to breed to Kitten’s Joy at his $50,000 fee. The mare was bred at that fee and three months later Kitten’s Joy sired three Grade-1 winners on the same day. Kitten’s Joy now stands for $150,000 and is one of the hottest stallions around. The Speightstown mare gave birth to a gorgeous Kittens Joy colt this spring. It all goes back to our earlier discussion, recognizing talent before the masses.
Michael considers himself a patient trainer who allows the horse to dictate the tempo. Accordingly, he is not big on 2-year-olds. He knows when the big money races are scheduled and sees no reason to crank them up just to win early. Just like any trainer, Michael wants to win the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup races but he has set an even loftier dream for himself. He would love to win The Melbourne Cup, a 2-mile race that no American trainer has ever won. He thinks it is a fantastic training feat to get a horse to cruise the first 1 ¾ miles then fly home the last ¼ – as fine an example of speed and stamina as you’ll see.
Michael told me that his typical day starts when he wakes up at 4 AM. He has his coffee while going through each horse in his mind and thinking about what they need to be at their best. He arrives at the barn just after 5 AM, at which time he goes stall to stall checking legs. He has his staff take several horses out and has them jog for him. He does this to ensure he only takes sound horses to the track in the morning. If he spots anything new on a horse he has his fiancée and another vet check the horse, which again gives three points of view, two veterinary opinions and his own. The first set heads to the track at 6 AM, with Michael accompanying them on his pony. They train from 6:00 AM – 8:15 AM, when they break for the track to be harrowed. During the break Michael walks the shed row with his foreman to decide who wears what type of bandage and who goes in ice. The last two sets go out from 8:45 AM – 9:45 AM. Typically, he trains four sets before the break and two after.
All the way down to the selection of his riders, Michael pays close attention to detail. While most trainers try to pair horses with riders whose strengths coincide with the horse’s style, Michael also looks at the size of both the horse and jockey. He sees no point putting a tall rider on a small horse because when they are driving in the stretch the jocks hands will be near the horse’s ears, creating a lot of wasted motion. With a small rider and a big horse they end up pushing at the base of the neck instead of the middle.
Michael also has very healthy views on the medication issues in the industry and brought out some really good points in our discussions about them. One such point is that horse racing really has no offseason and many horses are in training year-round. A break from training or racing can alleviate a lot of the stress on the joints of the equine athlete, thus lessening the need for therapeutic medications. Because of this, Michael utilizes Bruce Jackson at Fair Hill where, after a 30-day break, he finds his horses come back mentally fresh, stronger and ready to get back to work. Another interesting point Michael brings out is in the Lasix discussion.
“There are many factors that can cause a horse to bleed but they have not been able to pinpoint the ultimate source,” he said. “In my experience, I have seen higher incidences when horses are pushed further than what they are fit enough [to run] and in hot and humid weather conditions.”
To illustrate how doing it right and paying attention to detail works, let’s take a quick look at recent Michael Wilson Belmont starter Simply Spectacular. Those who follow me or read this column know, I am not a big believer in Beyer figures and prefer Thorograph and Ragozins, but we will use Beyers for this quick review. Prior to Michael training Simply Spectacular, she had run five times (four at Tampa and once at Calder). She was still a maiden and her highest Beyer figure was 61. She hadn’t run since March when Michael started her for the first time at Belmont in a maiden special weight race on May 21st. She won that day, earning a career best 76 Beyer. She was 20-1. She came right back and repeated in a non-winners of one with a $75,000 purse, again at Belmont and earned a 67 Beyer figure, still higher than her previous top. The figure regression was understood and expected but the win speaks for itself. The results of Michael’s program speak for themselves, as well. Nothing against the old outfit but this horse obviously responded to the type of program Michael runs. I suspect many will respond similarly.
When the call from Justin Zayat came in and the news went public, Michael could not believe he was selected at this young stage of his career. The first person he called was his fiancée but it did not take long for his phone to start blowing up. News both good and bad travels fast in the Sport of Kings.
When asked about the best part of his day, Wilson’s reply was simple.
“I love sitting on my pony next to the horses and just petting them before they go off and train. It’s like seeing your kids off to school.”
Learning about Michael Wilson’s operation was refreshing. As an animal lover, myself, as well as a supporter and lover of the game, it was great to see a top outfit that does it right. It’s all about understanding the game, the horses and putting the horses first. An outfit who goes the extra mile and then some, and who shows what I wrote a few weeks ago to be true – you can do it right and still win at a very high percentage.
As a gambling man by nature, I’m betting Justin comes out looking pretty sharp with his decision and his belief in this young man.
“Past the Wire” thanks both Zayat Stables and Michael Wilson for allowing us to bring you inside this world class operation. We wish the very best of well-deserved success to both.
Before we wrap up, we can’t overlook the fact that the wait is now over and Saratoga and Del Mar are upon us. It’s probably one of, if not the, most exciting times of year in day to day racing. Two top meets going at once and, even better, one early and one late. Right around the corner are the Whitney, which promises to be a classic this year, the Travers, always a classic, the Pacific Classic, need I say more? There’s also the Test, Alabama and, down at the shore, we have the Haskell looming. That race has some added excitement with the announcement that filly sensation Untappable is heading that way. There will be a lot to discuss in our upcoming columns.
The high five goes to Del Mar for saying “buh-bye” to California Chrome and his appearance fee. They made the right call. Pacific Classic day will be just fine.
I would love to not do it, but I can’t. This week’s Low Five goes to the connections of the people’s horse, America’s horse, California Chrome, for highlighting how it was not in the horse’s best interest to appear at Del Mar but they’d do it anyway for $50,000. Then they outlined how they’d divide the $50,000 amongst themselves with none going to the “people”, “America” or any equine charity. Will someone also please explain to them that the Awesome Again is a “win” and you’re in race, not a run and you’re in race?
Horse to Watch:
Atreides. Dreaming of Julia’s little sibling ran to the hype in debut and should try the Spa.
Jonathan Stettin is a profesional handicapper and contributor to DanonymousRacing.com. He currently resides in Florida. He has several large Pick-6 scores to his name, including one for $540,000+ on August 10, 1994, at Saratoga. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanstettin.