03/24/2011 3:57PM

Fair Grounds witnessing Howard's resurgence

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Lou Hodges Jr.
Wilkinson, Garrett Gomes up, wins the Lecomte.

NEW ORLEANS – Neil Howard is proof that you can’t keep a good man down. He’s one of the nicest trainers in the game, unfailingly polite, beyond considerate, his main concerns being his horses, his clients, and then, a distant third behind that photo finish, himself – always in that order.

Howard has proven for more than three decades that he knows how to train, witness a Preakness victory by Summer Squall in 1990, a Kentucky Oaks win by Secret Status in 2000, and a masterful campaign that landed Mineshaft the title as Horse of the Year in 2003.

But in recent years, Howard, 62, was not achieving the success to which he was accustomed. After sending out horses who earned $3.6 million in 2003, and winning 37 of 173 races in 2004 and 43 of 188 races in 2005, Howard went 11 for 154 in 2008, and 13 for 143 in 2009, when his horses earned just $538,744. He had enough perspective, and common sense, to know those times would not last.

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“It’s the nature of the business,” Howard said at his Fair Grounds barn the other morning. “Numbers do help. Nowadays, a 25- or 30-horse barn is moderate-sized, but that was a big stable in the old days. If a few things go uncharacteristically wrong, it can slow you down. Everybody goes through certain times. If you’re a medium-sized stable, they can slow you down more than if you have a big bench.”

For Howard, the times, as has been written, they are a-changing. Howard started gathering momentum the last half of 2010, a year in which he went 19 for 199 and won $871,365 in purses, and in 2011, not even a quarter into the year, he is 6 for 47 with earnings of $281,460. His productive meeting at Fair Grounds has been highlighted by the development of a pair of 3-year-olds, Machen and Wilkinson, both of whom are in the Grade 2, $1 million Louisiana Derby on Saturday.

“It’s exciting, but you’re always a little apprehensive,” said Howard, who is nervous by nature. “You know that things can change from day to day. It’s things we trainers dwell on. Injuries. Sickness. The Thoroughbred is high energy, but delicate in terms of what we put them through.

“But we’re lucky to be able to do what we love. I’m apprehensive even in a maiden race. Even the thought of running in this race on Saturday, or maybe the Derby, it’s exciting.”

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Machen (pronounced “MAY-chen,” according to Howard) has come a long way in a short amount of time. He did not make his debut until Jan. 2, and won powerfully going six furlongs against maidens. Four weeks later, Machen stretched out around two turns and won a first-level allowance race. Off that race, he was wheeled back three weeks later in the Risen Star, in which he finished fourth behind Mucho Macho Man.

“He’s a little light on seasoning,” Howard said. “If the big goal was in July or August, it would be different, but you’ve got to try and move them along and see if they can develop in April and May.”

If Machen proves to be a colt who needs more time before being at his peak, he will not be sacrificed on the altar of the Derby. Nor will Wilkinson.

Howard has been judicious with Wilkinson. Though Wilkinson began his career earlier, last October at Keeneland, Howard instinctively believed he had made significant progress in several weeks. After Wilkinson won the Lecomte here on Jan. 22, which marked his third start in six weeks and fifth overall, Howard backed off and kept him out of the Risen Star to await the Louisiana Derby.

“He probably didn’t need that much time, but if he’d have come back in the Risen Star after the hard race he had in the Lecomte, that would have been too much,” Howard said. “No matter what happens in the Louisiana Derby, I won’t second-guess myself about not running in the Risen Star.

“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves. Aside from the Derby, when it’s all said and done, we know we have two nice horses in the barn who could have good years.”

Howard said the two colts have distinct personalities.

“Machen is a little more level-headed,” he said. “He’s laid-back. Wilkinson is like a high-school kid. There’s a lot of play in him.”

Machen is a homebred owned by the Courtlandt Farm of Don Adams. Wilkinson is a homebred of the Gaillardia Racing stable of Ed Gaylord. The common thread with Howard to both men is Will S. Farish III of Lane’s End Farm. Adams, who has a dozen runners with Howard, boards his mares at Lane’s End, and Gaylord has been involved in partnerships with Farish for years.

It was Farish who offered Howard a private job in 1984, just five years after Howard went on his own following stints with Hall of Fame trainers Woody Stephens and Mack Miller. They have been aligned ever since. Both Mineshaft and Secret Status were bred and owned by Farish in partnerships. Summer Squall was bred in partnership by Farish, raced for the Dogwood Stable syndicate, then returned to Lane’s End for stud duty.

“I’m fortunate to have good clients,” Howard said. “Everything I do has the Farish family influence. That’s really what I get the most enjoyment out of. I love the feeling of accomplishing something for the people who are supporting you. There’s nothing better.”