09/17/2007 12:00AM

Meticulous trainer says happy horses yield positive results

EmailSAN MATEO, Calif. - Lloyd Mason's appreciation of horses began as a child, even though it was another quarter-century before he arrived at the racetrack.

"I grew up in Arizona until I was 10," Mason said. "We knew people who owned a ranch and once a week they'd put me on a saddle horse, and I'd take a lunch and ride out in the desert for the day. My passion for horses began then."

That passion bubbled for years as Mason worked construction in the family concrete business by day and spent his nights with horses at an arena on family property.

Always something of a daredevil, Mason began to ride jumpers, including Kojak, who set still-standing records on the Monterey (Calif.) course and made the Grand Nationals.

"There was nothing fearful about it, but I was getting tired of running all over, and we were bought out by developers who built an industrial park," he said.

"I was a little past 30 and had a good friend who was a veterinarian. He had been a trainer before and suggested that I might enjoy that, knowing I loved being around horses."

Mason sent out his first winner in 1980 and has won consistently despite never having a large stable.

He took what he learned from the horse-rider partnership of jumpers and incorporated it into his training philosophy.

"I think I learned to understand horses really well from that," he said. "Horses are very, very smart. They appreciate someone who treats them well. They have to be kept happy."

Mason insists on meticulous attention to detail in his barn, something that paid off earlier this year when several horses came down with contagious herpes.

"You don't wish that on anyone, but, if it had to happen to someone, it might have been good that it happened to Lloyd," said Golden Gate Fields track veterinarian Dr. Diane Isbell. "He takes such good care of his horses that we were able to keep things under control."

The incident still causes Mason to shudder. Although he took the lead, he said his employees were the real heroes.

"Fortunately, I had a lot of good grooms," he said. "They used masks, gloves, and coveralls with each different horse. They are very conscientious people."

Mason excels with equipment changes, particularly adding blinkers. He also likes to move horses to turf and see if they improve.

He says he relies on exercise riders and jockeys when making the decision.

"If they say a horse is looking around a lot or if they don't like dirt in their face, I consider blinkers," Mason said.

"Blinkers help protect a horse a bit. Dirt hits them hard and it stings. Of course, they also help horses maintain their focus."

Mason's horses show profits when switching surfaces. He looks at a horse's stride, conformation, and pedigree when considering the switch to turf. But he's not afraid to bring them back to the dirt quickly if they don't perform on turf.

Although his win percentage is not what it was three years ago when he was winning at a nearly 30-percent clip with a double-digit return on investment, Mason is good with debut runners. His first-timers are usually contenders that hit the board with regularity.

"It's no real secret," he said. "I've been lucky to have a number of good maidens, and I try to work them in sets of two and three, so when they do run their first race, they have experience with other horses."

Mason is not afraid to try new things. He was one of the first trainers to use stem cells to help a horse (Blazing Desert) recover from a ligament injury.

To keep horses happy, he often suggests that owners give them time off to rejuvenate. He likes to take horses that have been turned out and start them back on jogging machines to keep a rider's weight off their backs as they begin conditioning.

Anything to keep horses happy.