01/04/2017 3:10PM

Hovdey: Breaking up not so hard to do


Elizabeth Arden Graham, cosmetics entrepreneur and racehorse owner, drove her trainers to distraction with her frilly pink stable trappings, her bizarre interpretations of horsey dreams, and her demands to use products designed for the faces of women on the hooves of her Thoroughbreds.

Not surprisingly, Graham went through scores of trainers during the heyday of her Maine Chance Farm. She also won the Kentucky Derby with Jet Pilot, raced the champions Star Pilot and Beaugay, and in 1945 led the nation’s owners in earnings.

Fred Hooper, the Alabama road builder who established a Thoroughbred empire, had his many trainers trotting through a revolving door of favoritism over his six decades in the business, never sure if they were in or out, or for how long. Susan’s Girl, a three-time champion and the best mare Hooper ever bred or raced, started 63 times while at one time or another being trained by Jimmy Picou, John Russell, Charley Parke, Tommy Kelly, Robert L. Smith, and Ross Fenstermaker.

Hooper also was presented with two Eclipse Awards as outstanding breeder as well as the Eclipse Award of Merit for 1991, at the age of 94.

When Hooper fired Fenstermaker in 1987, barely a year after he had trained Hooper’s Precisionist to 1985 Eclipse Award heights as champion sprinter, Ross took it with a philosophical shrug.

“We’ve been together a lot of times over the years, and he’s made changes before,” Fenstermaker told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s the way he’s been all his life, and you just have to accept it.”

Hooper replaced Fenstermaker with Russell, who was back in after being out. Russell’s reaction?

“Something like this happens so often in this business that it hardly qualifies as a big story anymore,” Russell said.

He was right. Horses do change barns all the time – they’re called claimers – and no one ever bats an eye. But when it happens to someone like Bob Baffert, it does qualify as a big story, although not an unusual one.

Kaleem Shah’s decision to remove his horses from the Baffert stable this week has provided juicy grist for social-media mavens. Their exploits together with the likes of Bayern and Dortmund stamped them as an enviable owner-trainer combo. How the bloom fell from the rose is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: No one is feeling sorry for anybody.

Baffert’s well of A-list clients continues to seem bottomless, while Shah, a tech-sector entrepreneur whose principal client is the U.S. government, has been tireless in pursuit of racing’s biggest prizes, and spending the money to get there. It made perfect sense that in the wake of the split Shah would turn to horsemen who have trained three of the five most recent Kentucky Derby winners, Doug O’Neill and Art Sherman.

“Well, it was a surprise to me,” said Sherman, who is putting the finishing touches on preparations for California Chrome’s swan song in the Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 28. “He called me from out of the blue.”

The O’Neill stable is accustomed to the level of play afforded by patrons like Paul Reddam and, more recently, Calumet Farm. Sherman, on the other hand, is braced for an exciting new experience at the age of 79.

Most trainers will tell you they’re no different than coaches or managers. They are hired eventually to be fired by patrons who have every right to come and go as they please.

In the fall of 1964, Charlie Whittingham arrived at his Bay Meadows barn one afternoon to find that the horses owned by Maj. C.C. Moseley, the enterprising aviator who founded a chain of flying schools, had been led away to another trainer.

“The man wanted me to blister all his horses,” Whittingham told a friend, referring to a common treatment for sore shins. “I told him it wasn’t such a good idea. He told me to do it anyway, so I told him where to put the peaches.”

By then, Whittingham already had trained the champion Porterhouse and major stakes winners Mister Gus and Social Climber, but Moseley was his biggest patron, and the wind whistled through the line of empty stalls. A few days later, Whittingham received a call from Howard B. Keck, the owner of 1959 Hollywood Derby winner Bagdad, who was looking to make a trainer change.

“Hiring Charlie was a sheer guess on my part,” Keck said years later.

Let the record show that their association lasted more than a quarter of a century and led to, among many other major moments, Whittingham’s first victory in the Kentucky Derby with Ferdinand, who raced for Keck’s wife, Elizabeth.

Sherman is cautiously excited about his new opportunity.

“Most of my clients have had to scuffle to stay in the game, but they love it so much they find a way,” Sherman said. “This will be the first time I’ve trained for someone who has spent the kind of money Mr. Shah has on horses.”

After 21 years as a jockey, Sherman is now in his 39th year as a trainer.

“I don’t think I was ever actually fired,” Sherman said. “I have recommended to an owner that somebody else might be able to do a little better, that I’d done all I could. That way, you’ve left the door open for them to come back to you.

“Although,” Sherman added, “most of the time, it doesn’t work that way.”