There may be plenty of data out there on trainer performance, but for owners, selecting a conditioner involves much more than numbers, according to an owner and trainer that have worked together for about 15 years.
West Point Thoroughbreds president Terry Finley and trainer Dallas Stewart were among the speakers at an ownership seminar held by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Aug. 9. TOBA includes discussion of the owner-trainer relationship as part of its seminars.
Winning races is the objective, they said, but success comes at a price: a good working relationship, regular communication, and understanding each other's needs. In the day-to-day business of owning and training racehorses, however, those things are a challenge.
"Training horses has to be on gut feeling," Stewart said. "What we saw at the barn yesterday, we may not be seeing today. The owner has to trust the trainer. He has to listen to me, and I have to listen to the horse.
"If that (process) gets messed up, it's not horse training."
"Not every trainer is a good fit for an owner, and not every owner is a good fit for a trainer," Finley said. "And I don't know of any owner and trainer that have a written contract. In any other business it would be hard to find a set-up like we have in racing.
"As soon as you start to second-guess in our game, you're going down the wrong road."
West Point, through its partnerships, races horses around the country. Finley said prospective owners should consider where the horses will race before making an investment.
"There are very few owners that don't have a strong desire to be around their horses at least part of the year," he said. "You have to make sure your trainer is in sync with that."
Finley and Stewart addressed other issues, including the role of the veterinarian and medication.
Finley said the veterinary issue can be "very frustrating" for some owners because of cost, but cutting corners to save money is detrimental. He said a $210,000 purchase at auction could end up costing $260,000 after the horse is prepared for racing, and vet care is part of the bottom line.
"It doesn't make sense for the leader of an organization to then worry about $300," Finley said. "We race on circuits that have the best owners, trainers, and vets in the world. (Expenses) are frustrating, but on the flip side, I'm resolved that this is just a cost of doing business. A good vet will help a trainer."
As for race-day medication such as the anti-bleeding drug furosemide, Stewart said the issue is open for debate. He said many of his fellow trainers "are trying to figure it out" what the next move will be should racing jurisdictions decide to ban the drug, also called Salix or Lasix, in some or all races.
Finley said the focus should be on detecting illegal drugs that have no place in a horse's system. He said those substances are the ones that upset the level playing field.
"We need to allocate our resources and funding to find the guys that are one step ahead of the chemistry and the laboratories," Finley said. "We also need a national hotline and offer rewards to people to give them a real incentive to turn people in. I've already spoken with TOBA about it."
Another issue, Finley said, is transparency with sale purchases.
"One of our dirty little secrets is we do corrective surgery on foals," Finley said. "We don't have the ability as the end-users to see it. People in Kentucky want to take away Lasix but not tell us about horses that have had corrective surgeries. I think some adjustments need to be made."
During a TOBA ownership in early May at Churchill Downs, owner Jim Culver of Dream Team One Racing Stable and trainer Dale Romans discussed other issues related to the owner-trainer relationship.