01/19/2012 12:30PM

Maker rises to forefront with Derby contender Hansen

Barbara D. Livingston
Mike Maker has had late-blooming Derby runners the last two years. Hansen enters 2012 as last year’s 2-year-old champion.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. − Only monks who have taken a vow of silence are quieter than Mike Maker. He sneaks up like a stealth bomber. You don’t know he’s coming, but after he’s left you know he’s been there.

Maker, 43, is steadily rising among the nation’s trainers. He has won more than 125 races each of the last four years, and in 2011 his runners won a personal record $6,721,836, ranking Maker 10th in the nation in purse earnings. He has won two Breeders’ Cup races and has run in the Kentucky Derby each of the last two years. He also trains the unbeaten Hansen, who won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, is a leading contender for this year’s Kentucky Derby on May 5, and Monday night was named the champion 2-year-old male of 2011, giving Maker his first Eclipse Award-winning horse.

Yet, befitting his personality, Maker prefers to stay off to the side, like a caddy. On Monday night, while Hansen’s namesake, breeder, and majority owner, Dr. Kendall Hansen, accepted the Eclipse Award trophy, Maker was almost at the far end of a line of family and friends lined up behind Hansen. He never made an attempt to head to the podium to speak.

“Mike Maker,” Hansen said during his acceptance speech, turning toward Maker, “from the bottom of my heart, thank you for this championship.”

Similarly, when the equine Hansen won the Juvenile, Maker largely deflected media questions immediately following the race, preferring Dr. Hansen take center stage.

Though he is based in Louisville, Ky., Maker trains not at Churchill Downs, but a few miles away at the Churchill Downs training center more commonly known as Trackside. He doesn’t avoid the media. Actually, he can be quite accommodating. But he’s not exactly seeking the klieg lights, either.

“That’s not my personality,” Maker said just days before the Eclipse Awards.

In fact, the greatest irony regarding Maker may be that he makes the most noise when he is trying to be quietest. Maker has sleep apnea and snores so loudly that, to arrest it, he turns to a CPAP machine, wearing a mask that provides a continual flow of air into his nasal passages and allows him to sleep soundly and quietly through the night.

“I’ve had it about a year,” Maker said. “You get used to it. The first time I tried it, I thought there was no way I could use it. But after experiencing how well it works, you want to have it on.”

Yet while a cursory view of Maker may leave the impression that, at an old age, he’ll be a recluse like Howard Hughes, friends and owners who have horses with him say Maker has a dry sense of humor and enjoys busting chops.

“When he opens up and talks to you, you realize how funny and clever he is,” said Dr. Harvey Diamond, the managing partner of Skychai Racing, which owns 25 percent of Hansen. “For the most part, to the general public, he plays his cards close to the vest.”

That, plus being the son of a trainer and a former assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, mirrors the story arc of a far better-known trainer, five-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher.

Maker grew up in the northern suburbs of Detroit, Mich., where his father, George, was based at Detroit Race Course and Hazel Park. George Maker trained for 25 years and won more than 1,000 races, largely in Michigan.

“I’ve been on the racetrack my whole life,” Mike Maker said. “I grew up following my dad around. People think I’m quiet, but my father was extremely quiet. I take after him.

“My dad had some good trickery about him,” he said. “He’d say, ‘I bet you can’t clean that stall before that horse comes back off the track.’ I’d get it done.”

Even then, at age 5, in 1974, the attraction to racing was deep. Maker said he knew early on that he wanted to follow his father and become a trainer.

“I thought it was very exciting,” Maker said. “It was the opportunity to have your own business. I looked at it as having your own sports franchise.”

In 1993, Maker was still in Michigan, training a few horses for himself while also working for his father. There was local racing nine months a year, but Maker sought a year-round job.

“I wanted to get out of Michigan for the winter,” he said.

Maker cold-called Dallas Stewart, who was an assistant to Lukas at the time and was heading to Oaklawn Park with a string of horses. A couple of days later, Maker was in Hot Springs, Ark.

“He worked hard,” Stewart said. “He was a man of little words, but that’s all I wanted − someone to be there early and work hard. He went with me to Turfway and then Churchill. I remember Wayne was apprehensive about promoting him because he was so quiet. I told Wayne, ‘You’ll love the way he handles horses, and he’ll run the business well.’ He did Wayne well.”

“I was very lucky to hook on with Wayne,” Maker said. “At the time, Todd was working in New York, and George Weaver was his assistant, but we never worked together. I was Dallas’ foreman. When Dallas went to Monmouth, Wayne left me at Churchill Downs to run at Ellis and then at Turfway.”

Maker was around such top horses as Cat Thief, Orientate, Serena’s Song, Spain, Surfside, and Charismatic, who in 1999 won the Derby and Preakness en route to being named Horse of the Year.

In 2002, Maker’s father died from cancer. He was 61. One year later, at age 34, Maker decided it was time to hang out his own shingle.

“It was a tough decision because it was such a great job with Wayne,” Maker said. “I had cold feet but decided it was time to do it. I thought I might as well take a chance.”

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One of the first people who backed Maker was owner Ken Ramsey, who had horses at the time with Lukas but usually employs several trainers.

“Mike said, ‘I’d like to take you out to dinner,’ ” Ramsey said. “Now that was odd coming from an assistant, because I’m usually the one to pick up the tab. He said he was leaving, wanted to strike out on his own, and was there any chance I’d give him some horses.”

Within a month, Maker said, he had 20 runners. Now he’s up to 80, with 40 in Kentucky and 40, including Hansen, who are at Gulfstream Park for the winter. Of those 80, more than half are owned by Ramsey.

“I think he’s a future Hall of Fame trainer,” Ramsey said. “He and Todd Pletcher have a whole lot in common. Same school, same background.

“He’s a very good horseman,” he said. “It’s not like one size fits all. He basically and quietly does a good job. And when you claim off him, not many improve off him.”

Maker has done extremely well with several horses he has claimed, most notably Furthest Land, who was taken for $35,000 on behalf of Ramsey and went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita in 2009.
Diamond and Ramsey say Maker is candid in his assessment of horses.

“He’s reserved, but he always strikes me as extremely intelligent,” Diamond said. “He’s very observant. He’s brutally honest at times. I trust him explicitly.”

According to Ramsey, Maker “doesn’t get carried away and wear his heart around his sleeve like I do.”

“I’ll start talking about running in a Grade 1, and Mike will say, ‘Maybe we should run in that restricted New York-bred race first and see what we’ve got,’ ” Ramsey said. “He keeps me grounded.”

That sensibility has helped Maker win races in bunches. He has won with at least 20 percent of his starters every year since 2006 and has led the standings for a season at every Kentucky track: Churchill Downs, Ellis Park, Keeneland, Kentucky Downs, and Turfway, where he has nine meet titles, including the last four.

Maker admits he does not have many outside interests, though he joked he was a Lions fan this year, when they made the NFL playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.

“No, just horses and my little boy,” Maker said.

Maker’s son, Michael, 5, splits time with Maker and his ex-wife, Barbara. His son accompanied Maker to the Eclipse Awards. It was the first time both had attended.

“Never been before,” Maker said. “Never earned my way, never was invited.”

Having his son, plus his mother, Sharon, along with his girlfriend, Rachel LaVoy, and her son at the Breeders’ Cup made that moment all the more special, Maker said. Similarly, Maker said much of the satisfaction he has gotten out of running in the Derby the last two years was seeing the joy it brought his owners. In 2010, he started Blue Grass winner Stately Victor for the father and son team of Tom and Jack Conway. He finished eighth. Last year, Maker ran two longshots, Lexington winner Derby Kitten, who finished 13th, and Blue Grass runner-up Twinspired, who finished 17th.

“The best part is that you’ve accomplished something to get there,” Maker said. “To see Tom Conway, a longtime Louisville resident, share that with Jack, that was a great feeling.”

Those horses, however, were outsiders who became Derby contenders late in the game. This year begins with a far different scenario because Hansen is already ranked among the elite more than three months before Derby Day. Maker said he is not surprised Hansen is in this position. Maker has been extremely high on Hansen since the colt began serious training.

“It was just the way he handled himself with other competition, with workmates,” Maker said. “I had to put older horses with him. He’s always shown a lot of fight. He’s a tough dude.

“You could see it in the Breeders’ Cup − he wouldn’t let that other horse pass,” Maker said, referring to runner-up Union Rags. “That’s his personality.”

It is not Maker’s personality to take center stage. Because of Hansen, however, he knows there will be more demands for him to come out from the shadows this spring as the Derby nears.

“I expect that, but there’s a lot of racing between now and then,” Maker said. “Obviously, he has to continue to improve.”

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But the Derby is at the forefront of his mind.

“It’s a race you spend your whole life thinking about,” Maker said. “It’s something you always dream of. It would be special to do it with owners who have been in concert with me for a long time.

“It’s all very exciting,” he said. “I’m just trying not to get too far in front of myself. You wake up and want it to be here.”