Kellyn Gorder

Kellyn Gorder

Lorie Hull-Elverd

The Making of a Trainer

Kellyn Gorder is a skilled horseman and one of the few trainers, say his clients, who is truly worthy of that description. Gorder is not famous – yet. But those who work closely with him feel he is on the verge of a career breakthrough.

Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, is one of Gorder’s biggest fans. Still, he wouldn’t mind if the trainer remained under the industry radar a bit longer. It would allow him to keep Gorder to himself.

“If everyone knew how good he is, he’d be swamped with horses,” Irwin remarked when asked to describe Gorder’s skills. “He’s an undiscovered treasure.”

Irwin has enough confidence in Gorder that he entrusted him with breaking Team Valor’s  $2.2 million Mr. Greeley sales-topper from last year’s Fasig-Tipton select Saratoga yearling sale and has given him other runners to campaign as well.

“He’s not a big guy with lots of horses but I know he’ll pay attention,” the owner said. “He takes his time, and he’s not gonna lie. I’ve sent him good horses, and I’m gonna send him more.”

There are 17 runners in Gorder’s shedrow at Keeneland’s barn 74, under the banner of WinStar Farm. After breaking the WinStar yearlings five years in a row, starting horses like Bluegrass Cat and Sharp Susan and Any Given Saturday, Gorder went out on his own in August of 2007. He had a difficult time finding stalls, so the arrangement with WinStar – to use their stalls for his own clients while working with some of the WinStar youngsters before they moved on to racing careers – was a lifesaver.

Gorder’s clients say they like working with him because he inspires confidence with his astute attention to detail. He can quickly recall for each starter specific incidents that occurred during their breaking and training, and later their races.

Gorder also gets results, and his horses prove his talent. There is Jacaranda Jane, the 7-year-old mare who came off an eight-month layoff and finished second in December, going on to win for the trainer Jan. 1 of this year. There’s a Jump Start filly who recently made her first start and, despite coming out of the gate a little dazed and confused, pulled herself together and came flying at the end. There’s also a 3-year-old colt by Harlan’s Holiday who “went from a boy to a man” just this week, Gorder said. The colt has dispensed with his lazy workout times and is now getting down to business with promise.

Gorder’s clients say he doesn’t just train Thoroughbreds – he understands and bonds with them. Horses respond to his even temperament and quiet presence. So do people.

“I’m not easily impressed with anything or anyone,” said Melanie O’Brien, the yearling and layups manager at Fares Farm, where Gorder keeps about 15 additional young horses in various stages of breaking and training. “But I’ve been impressed with him and everything he’s done so far. He’s just that good.”

Gorder’s methods of breaking yearlings illustrate his quiet confidence. After free work in the round pen, he will saddle and begin to ride the youngster – equipped only with a rope halter and lead. Before a bit ever touches the mouth of his trainee, that horse is taught to yield to the slightest pressure. Gorder’s method builds trust and will enhance a horse’s heart and willingness, he said. His actions are steady, reassuring, and without unnecessary force.

“I don’t want to be called a horse whisperer,” Gorder said. “But I would consider myself a natural horseman. I try to make the wrong things difficult and the right things easy and make my idea become the horse’s idea – all those kind of Ray Hunt philosophies.”

Hunt is a legendary trainer that Gorder met while attending the University of Wisconsin, and it is his philosophy that Gorder embraced and brought to the track – although his initial attraction to horses began much earlier, way back during his growing up years in Worthington, Minn. There, with neighbors who owned and trained racehorses, he began to dream of a career in the industry. He wore out his paperback copy of Pete Axthelm’s Steve Cauthen biography because he wanted to be a jockey, followed the usual steps to a racing career and was 16, still in high school, when he broke from the starting gate for the third time ever at Nebraska’s Atokad Park. His mount, Coole Park, took him around the track to a sweet $79.20 payoff.

The racing career lasted only two summers before Gorder decided to go to college. Still galloping at Canterbury Park and breaking Thoroughbreds in his spare time, Gorder graduated with a degree in Animal Science and an emphasis in Equine studies in 1990. He worked under Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, spent time at the former 505 training center (now Victory Haven), briefly went out on his own, and then wound up at WinStar for five years. All the while, he put Hunt’s methods into practice and developed a program of his own.

One of Gorder’s greatest successes has been with Grammarian, a gelding by Definite Article who inspired Gorder to take out his training license in Kentucky. After owner Lindsey Williams approached Gorder about managing Grammarian’s campaign, he saddled the colt to break his maiden at Kentucky Downs in his first start during September of his sophomore year. Following a few allowance races at Churchill Downs, Gorder started him in the 2002 Sunset Handicap (gr. IIT) at Hollywood Park. Grammarian defeated grade/group II winners Continental Red and Lord Flasheart.

After the victory, it was tempting for Gorder to go out on his own, but he chose the security of the WinStar position instead. During the time with the well-known farm, however, he missed the excitement of the track.

“It was something that was nagging me in the back of my mind,” he said. “I just turned 40, and I was scared to death that I’d wake up one day and say ‘Man, I never really tried to make it.’ So I did.”

The years have been kind to Gorder. His profession has kept him trim and fit, and he plans to ride his own trainees for a long while. Along with wife Kerry, he recently purchased a small farm in Bourbon County, and hopes to fill stalls with the beginnings of a pinhooking venture and a family horse for daughters Hally (20), Emily (9), and Samantha (7).

Gorder is appreciative of how far he’s come in the past few months, from supervising six horses in a crowded barn at the Training Center to overseeing 17 head in premium space at Keeneland. And every time he comes back to the barn at feeding time, when those 17 horses peer from their stalls and nicker at his approach, he is reminded that he’s doing what he’s meant to do. His operation may be small, but he has new horses coming in on a relatively regular basis, and he started the year off with a winner.

Describing his situation, Gorder smiled.

A man could get used to that feeling, he said.