07/11/2008 12:00AM

An academic earns a racing degree

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The racetrack is known as a school of hard knocks, where backstretch workers must deal on a daily basis with varying degrees of adversity. Michelle Nihei already has a doctorate in neuroscience, so why in the world would she want to train racehorses?

"When you spend every waking hour thinking of racehorses," said Nihei, "and you spend all your spare time being around them, it just made sense to switch careers like I did."

Nihei, 37, opened a public stable in November in Tampa, Fla., and now oversees a growing stable of 21 horses at Churchill Downs. Her career is off to a solid start, as she posted 2 wins and 3 seconds from 7 starts at the recently ended Churchill spring meet.

Nihei said her love of horses began at a very early age, "before I could talk or walk." She grew up in western Canada, in Calgary and Vancouver, where her father worked as a scientist and her mother as an attorney. While furthering her education, she always was involved in riding and working with horses, she said.

After earning a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky in 1996, Nihei (pronounced NEE-hay) worked for about 4 1/2 years at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, conducting research and clinical trials. While spending her weekends and days off with horses, she grew increasingly restless and bored with her job until finally she had had enough.

She returned in August 2001 to Kentucky to work as an exercise rider for several trainers, including George Arnold Sr., Mary Jo Lohmeier, Alice Cohn, Chris Speckert, Dallas Stewart, and Becky Maker. In May 2003, she went to work for Todd Pletcher at Saratoga, where the first horse she galloped was a 2-year-old filly named Ashado.

Over the next 2 1/2 years, Ashado became a two-time divisional champion at 3 and 4, earning more than $3.8 million. Nihei quickly became a key component in the vast Pletcher operation, exercising such top horses as Balto Star, Lion Heart, Flower Alley, Pollard's Vision, Purge, and Wait a While.

"Michelle is a very knowledgeable horseperson," said Pletcher, the Eclipse Award-winning trainer in each of the last four years (2004-07). "She was a diligent worker and an excellent rider and assistant."

On March 8, 2007, Nihei was aboard a horse named The Leopard at Palm Beach Downs in south Florida when the filly suddenly flipped over backward.

"She fell on my right knee," recalled Nihei. "The injury was so serious that initially the doctors in Florida thought they would have to amputate. The only thing holding the leg together was the patella tendon, and the doctors thought there wasn't enough arterial supply to the lower leg."

Pletcher intervened, using his connections to arrange for Nihei to be moved to Louisville, where Dr. David Caborn, a prominent orthopedic surgeon, was able to keep the leg intact and put her on a road to recovery.

"I underwent intense physical rehabilitation," said Nihei. "I was told I would never ride again, but I'm a very persistent person. I took a page from my teachers with four legs. Some of the horses I've worked with have gone through a lot worse than I did, and I thought if they can do it, I can do it."

During her rehab, Nihei decided she would open a public stable. When she was sufficiently recovered in November, she did just that at Tampa Bay Downs with Elisabeth Alexander, a major owner-breeder in Ohio who has owned horses such as $2.3 million earner Magna Graduate, as her main client. Nihei began with 10 horses, winning two races as word got out that a former top Pletcher employee had gone into business for herself. In the meantime, she was riding her own horses in the mornings.

"The leg isn't too bad," said Nihei, who still walks with a very slight limp. "It's not quite the same as it used to be, but I'm fine compared to how it could have turned out."

Nihei currently trains mostly unraced 2- and 3-year-olds for Alexander and several other clients, including Michael Paulson and James Hindman. Her better horses, both owned by Alexander, are Sousaphone, winner of a June 18 turf allowance at Churchill, and Crack the Cognac, second in two allowance sprints at Churchill.

"Michelle takes just excellent care of those animals," said Kim Valerio, the racing manager for Alexander, a philanthropist who lives near Cleveland. "We have a lot of faith in her. She's very thorough, and it shows."

Nihei said she will race sparingly at Ellis Park and Arlington Park this summer as she readies her 2-year-olds to run at Turfway or Kentucky Downs in September or Keeneland in October.

While it is not uncommon for a horse trainer to have earned a college degree, Nihei acknowledges that she is overqualified for her job - at least in terms of higher education. She has been questioned about why she would give up all those years of schooling to work on the racetrack, but she is single-minded in her focus to prove that she made the right decision for herself.

"I have some pretty high goals as a trainer," she said. "I've never been one to set my sights low. I'd probably jinx myself if I articulated too much, but let's just say I'm not setting the bar too low."