Running Back to the Track
Photo: Jim Lisa
Moe Williams

At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, Maurece “Moe” Williams is not your typical Thoroughbred trainer. Of course, not too many trainers are former college football stars or retired NFL running backs either.

But as unique as it may sound to the general public, Williams’ new career is not at all surprising to him. Not when you consider where he was raised.

“I’m from Lexington, which is horse country,” Williams said. “Growing up, I had a lot of friends who had horses. As a kid I spent much of my time around them, and I always enjoyed being on farms. I went to Keeneland all the time, but not just to bet. I liked being in the paddock and learning about them.”

Williams is a rookie when it comes to training, having started his first horse in 2007. On Aug. 30, he saddled his first winner when Spangler’s Storm wired the field in a maiden claiming event at Calder Race Course. Three more victories have followed since then, giving Williams confidence that he will one day be as successful at training as he was on the football field. He says being a former athlete, in some ways, may give him a slight advantage.

“I treat horses the way I wanted to be treated as an athlete; with respect,” Williams said. “I realize that they are all individuals and have to be treated differently. I give them their space when they need it.”

Though always interested in horses, Williams’ first true love was definitely football. And like a good equine athlete, running always came easy to him.

After spending most of his early years in Lexington, Williams’ was uprooted to Columbus, Ga., in tenth grade, when his mother, Marethia, who was in the military, was transferred to Fort Benning. Although upset to be leaving home initially, in hindsight, Williams said it was one of the best things that ever happened to him.

Playing under coach Collins Jones at Spencer High School, Williams developed into a star running back. After garnering all-state honors his senior year, he was offered an athletic scholarship to play for some of the top football programs in the nation, including the University of Miami, the University of Arkansas, and the University of Florida.

Williams turned all of them down in favor of Kentucky. “I wanted to go back home,” he said. “I always wanted to play in front of my friends and family.”

As a Wildcat, Williams immediately excelled, bursting onto the scene as a starter his freshman season. By 1995, his junior year, Williams was a certified star, setting the Kentucky single-season rushing record with 1,600 yards, while also scoring 17 touchdowns and being selected first-team All-Southeastern Conference. In all, the speedy tailback amassed 3,333 career rushing yards and became one of the best backs in school history, despite declaring for the NFL draft after his junior year.

One of the top 10 backs coming out of college, Williams was selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the third round of the 1995 draft. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong goal.

“That was a dream come true,” Williams said. “I wanted to play in the NFL since I was a kid.”

Williams played in the NFL for 10 seasons, all but one of them for the Vikings. His best years were in 2002, when he rushed for 11 touchdowns, and the following year, when he garnered career highs in both rushing attempts (174) and yards (745).

Several injuries, including a broken foot in 1998 and later back problems and knee surgery, often slowed Williams’ career. He ultimately retired at the beginning of the 2006 season with career totals of 3,337 total yards and 25 touchdowns. He has no regrets.

“There were a couple of times when I was either starting or had a chance to start, where injuries really stopped me,” Williams said. “I had bad timing in that respect. But if you look at it, I played for 10 years and that is pretty lucky. Most running backs in the NFL play about three or four years before they have to retire.”

Throughout his NFL career, Williams kept a residence in south Florida, where much of his family lived. About six years ago he was introduced to veteran horseman John Nazareth, who owned a 50-acre farm in Indiantown Gap, called Genuine Pleasure. At the time, Williams had no training experience but was hungry to learn. Nazareth soon took him under his wing and began to teach him the tricks of the trade.

During the NFL offseason, Williams would learn from Nazareth, or "Papa John", as he called him, every chance he could get. “He taught me everything; how to check their legs, what to look for, everything from the ground up,” Williams said. “I mucked the stalls and did it all.

“I was with him every day on the farm and at the track until he got sick a couple years ago. After he got cancer, I ran horses for him under his name.”

Eventually, as Nazareth became more ill, they worked out a deal where Williams would buy Genuine Pleasure. Nazareth passed away late in 2007 and Williams began living on the farm. He currently has about 20 horses, including seven in training and five broodmares. Williams owns many of them, including some he bought with Nazareth, but he also trains five horses for Diane Curry, whom he met some time ago through Nazareth.

“Moe is a really nice and genuine person. That is one of the reasons I kept my horses with him after John passed,” said Curry, who races her horses under the name Breezy’s Stable. “But Moe and I also have the same philosophy about horses. We won’t run them if they are hurt and always have their best interest in mind.

“He learned well from John; he was always taking notes. I wanted to give him an opportunity, and he’s done well so far. Hopefully, he’ll be successful in this business.”

A true sign of a former athlete, Williams does most of the dirty work himself, including continuing to muck the stalls and drive the horse trailer to and from Calder and Gulfstream Park on race days.

“I’ve always been a hands-on guy,” said Williams, who also has a real estate business in Lexington. “That way, nobody can tell you something that you haven’t already done. But mostly, I do it because I enjoy being with the horses.”

And as far as getting used to the schedule of a full-time trainer, Williams said he has reluctantly adapted to the change.

“On hot days and during daylight savings, you have to get up at 5 a.m.,” said Williams, 33, who said his long term goal is to win grade I races. “That has definitely been a change. During my playing days, I was just getting in at that time.

“But I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I would do something else.”

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