01/31/2013 2:43PM

Aqueduct: Gyarmati takes academic approach to training

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Leah Gyarmati runs Smooth Bert in Saturday’s Withers. Before becoming a trainer, she studied philosophy and earned a Master’s in theology.

It’s been a long time since Leah Gyarmati gave up doctoral studies for a life at the racetrack, but she admits there are still some things she misses about academia.

“I loved arguing,” she said this week from her home near Belmont Park. “I’m pretty opinionated.”

Although she rarely engages in philosophical discussion these days, Gyarmati, 48, has found that life on the racetrack offers plenty of opportunities for debate, perhaps most frequently with herself.

Following a childhood in Queens, N.Y., and preceding her career as a trainer, Gyarmati studied philosophy and theology at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., then enrolled in a doctoral program in theology at Drew University in New Jersey. For years, she deliberated about whether to spend her life as a scholar or as a horsewoman.

Growing up, Gyarmati was focused not on racehorses but on show horses, riding jumpers until her senior year in high school, when she got a job on Belmont’s backstretch.

“My godfather owned a piece of a horse that Allen Jerkens trained, and my father was looking for a way for me to spend the summer without having to pay for horse shows,” she said. “So he got me a summer job at Allen’s barn. I went kicking and screaming and ended up loving it, much to my father’s dismay.” 

Thus began a kind of argument − with herself − that would last for years, taking Gyarmati from student to hotwalker, from undergraduate to exercise rider, from doctoral candidate to jockey.

“My first year at college, I was so distracted,” she said. “I just wanted to go back to the track.

“I had kind of a crisis,” she said, laughing at her hyperbole. “I thought, ‘What am I doing? I need an education.’ ”

After completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Samford, Gyarmati came to New York, planning to ride horses for Jerkens in the morning and pursue her Ph.D in the afternoon and evenings. 

“That lasted a year,” she said. “I got sucked right back in [to the racetrack].”

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Gyarmati had planned to work at the barn only in the mornings, leaving afternoons and evenings for her studies, but one day, Jerkens asked if she wanted to ride one of his horses in the afternoon.

“ ‘You always wanted to ride as a kid,’ ” Gyarmati said she remembered him saying to her. “I was in my mid-30s, and it was supposed to be a one-time thing.”

The “one-time thing” turned into 222 mounts from 1997 to 1999. In the middle of a divorce and faced with the expenses of continuing her education, becoming a jockey seemed like “the right thing to do,” she said. 

Though her jockey career was short-lived, her relationship with Jerkens and his family was not. In addition to working for the man known on the backstretch as the Chief, she also worked for his son Jimmy and for trainer Mike Hushion, who himself worked as one of Jerkens’s assistants before going out on his own. 

“Allen is the first person whose opinion I look for; Jimmy is the second,” she said. “Allen is a father figure, and I want him to be proud of me. I seek advice from both of them all the time.” 

According to Jerkens, Gyarmati does just fine on her own. 

“She has what it takes to be successful nowadays,” Jerkens said by phone from Florida. “You have to be able to handle horses, and you have to be able to handle people. And she has the courage of her convictions.”

Gyarmati’s horses have earned $7,880,506 during her 14-year training career; her best year came in 2007, when her stable earned $1,010,324 with a record of 19-33-30 from 240 starts. She has never won a graded stakes race in 15 tries, but she hopes that will change in this weekend’s Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct, in which she’ll run Bona Venture Stables’ Smooth Bert.

Bona Venture Stables is managed by Dan Collins, who founded the partnership in 2005. Smooth Bert is the stable’s first stakes winner and will be its first runner in a graded stakes race.

When the partnership had acquired the stock to race at New York Racing Association tracks, the first trainer Collins chose was Gyarmati, for the very reasons articulated by Jerkens.

“We were looking for a trainer that was young and eager to work with new owners,” Collins said. “We wanted someone who was honest, and, most importantly, someone who didn’t have a series of medication violations.” 

“Our partnership is up to about 50 people,” Collins said, “and Leah always takes the time to spend with them. She gives them her phone number, she welcomes them to the barn, she lets the kids ride her pony. She’s part of the family.”

But it’s not just her way with people that satisfies Collins and his partners. He emphasized the importance of Thoroughbred aftercare, noting that Gyarmati goes out of her way to take care of horses when their racing days are done.

“She takes a personal interest in helping us make sure that when we retire horses, we find good and safe homes for them,” he said.

And while Gyarmati’s days as a regular rider are behind her, she still gets on a lot of the horses she trains, which Collins says is a distinct advantage.

“It’s what separates her from other trainers,” he said. “Many of our partners appreciate how hands-on she is.” 

Collins also praised Gyarmati’s patience.

“She’s never rushed a horse to the track,” he said. “She’s never called to ask to drop a horse down in order to get a win. She’s always thinking about the horse and not the race record.”

Smooth Bert is the horse Gyarmati’s been thinking about this week. Pointed to the Withers, he lost training time because of a temperature and the recent freezing weather in New York, and Gyarmati spent days mulling whether to run him. She waited for a Monday morning work to decide, then, still feeling uncertain, told the Daily Racing Form she was leaning toward running him, although she’d been hoping for a stronger workout.

Gyarmati might declare herself opinionated, but that assertion is belied by her considered approach to her horses and her clients. It is an approach that has led Gyarmati to a barn full of 20 horses, to stakes victories, including a Maryland Million win with the first horse she trained, Flippy Diane.

While her days of academic arguing are, it seems, firmly behind her, Gyarmati finds on the backstretch no shortage of opportunities to indulge her penchant for fervent discussions.

“Conversation at the racetrack can take all sorts of directions,” she said. “There’s a lot of stimulation, and you can be analytical about anything. It’s a totally different way of applying my background.”