As two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Carl Nafzger surveyed a large ballroom full of young college students, he chose his words carefully as he reflected upon his time in the horse industry.
"The Thoroughbred industry has taken us places we never would have gone," he said. "It's a dream--it's more than a race. It's a horse, and as long as we keep it the horse, it will continue to be a great industry."
At a program hosted by the University of Kentucky Horse Racing Club in Lexington, Nafzger, along with four other prominent trainers, gave attendees a glimpse of what life was like while walking in their shoes. Called "Inside Horse Racing: the Trainer's Point of View," the Oct. 8 event featured a question-and-answer session, as well as a silent auction to benefit the Maker's Mark Secretariat Center.
While some of the inquiries in the session were specific to particular trainers, others were directed at the entire group, and one by one, Nafzger, Rebecca Maker, Kenny McPeek, Ron Moquett, and John Ward addressed some of the most controversial topics facing the industry.
One of the issues discussed by the whole panel was the concerns surrounding Polytrack and whether the industry is doing everything in its power to protect the safety of the horse.
Maker has only had her trainer's license since 2002, but already has found immense success with her stable and expressed enthusiasm about the possibilities of Polytrack. She said traditional tracks such as Keeneland, which recently switched to a synthetic surface, had definitely made safety a priority.
Moquett, an Arkansas native currently running 20 to 30 horses across the Midwest and southern circuits, was a little more skeptical about synthetic surfaces.
"I think the jury is still out on the Polytrack," he said. "My horses train well on it and come back sound, but you don't know what the long-term effects are from breathing in the synthetic surface. It will be a few more years before we decide if it's a success."
McPeek, who is entering two horses in this year's Breeders' Cup World Championships, believes the concept of synthetic surfaces was good given tracks could learn to manage them better. He referred to the looseness and kickback issues Turfway Park had experienced with its Polytrack last winter, but concluded that overall the surface was "ultimately great for the game."
Referring to statistics of Keeneland having only one jockey break a bone since its Polytrack debut, Ward said it was amazing the industry had "been able to come a long way in such a short period of time." Ward trained 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, who now stands at Seth Hancock's Claiborne Farm near Paris, Ky.
"We just put an artificial surface over our training track, so I'm a big believer in it," Nafzger said. "I think we have a learning curve. We need to learn how train on it, ride on it, and managers have to learn to take care of it."
Later in the evening, Ward tackled the question of why prominent horses in the current racing age are making less starts than those of the past.
"If you're training well-bred animals where they've got a residual value, and their genetics will take them to the breeding shed, then as trainers, we are somewhat limited in what we can do with that horse as far as his performance goes," he said. "If the horse doesn't look like he's successful, then we have to get him to the breeding shed because we don't want to keep on tarnishing that pedigree and the owner has to get a return on a lifelong investment. Everyone wants to blame it on racetracks and soundness, but I want to blame it on economics mostly."
The crowd murmured in concern when the question of whether tracks should obtain slot machines or other gaming devices was asked of Moquett.
"I don't see anyone cheering for horses at those tracks (with slots)," he said. "Overall, we need (slots), but we're becoming dependent on it. I want people to be at the horse races for the horse races. I think horse racing is a strong enough sport to stand on its own, but at the same time, it gets to me that we can't generate enough money without (slots)."
One of the most interesting questions of the evening was how each of the trainers was able to balance a family life with their busy work schedules. All the trainers admitted it was a difficult life, with working seven days a week, but they had made it work by cutting back clients and involving their families in the industry as much as possible.
Maker was asked to give advice to young women wanting to rise up in the industry.
"Find a good job with a trainer, show up early, be diligent, and do more than you're asked to do," she said. You have to be there and working more so that you're noticed."