10/28/2016 12:56PM

Mongolian trainer looks for repeat in BC Turf Sprint

Barbara D. Livingston
Enebish Ganbat, in beige tunic, celebrates with jockey Florent Geroux Mongolian Saturday's victory in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.

STICKNEY, Ill. – He parks a rented Hyundai on a wan industrial Chicago morning and walks into a barn on the Hawthorne backstretch. A couple of jockey agents and two apprentice riders cluster near the office. Everyone smiles and greets him. “Hey, Ganbat!”

“Enebish Ganbat” his name reads as a trainer on official lists of North American past performances, but his name actually is Ganbat Enebish. Either is fine, really, he says, but people call him Ganbat. He is from Mongolia, where there are no family names. The son’s name is a given name attached to the father’s given name. “It changes every generation,” Ganbat said. “When you are calling me my father’s name, Enebish, you’re calling me a dead person.” Then he laughs deeply.

Ganbat’s father went to art school in East Germany and had a painting career. Ganbat painted, too, when he was young, but studied electrical engineering at the Moscow Institute, and was trained as a power plant engineer.

“Engineering was too boring a job for me,” he says. “I like adventure. Every day, do the same thing in engineering. I like adventure, travel, hunting, animals.”

The animals that now fill Ganbat’s days are Thoroughbreds – 10 of them stabled this fall at Hawthorne.

Surely there’s no trainer in North America with a more unusual biography. And it can seem, at times, six years and 28 wins into his North American training career, that Ganbat knows less about training than most North American horsemen.

Yet there, in the Hawthorne shedrow, stands a horse named Mongolian Saturday, a horse that gave Ganbat something only a sliver of the training population can claim – a Breeders’ Cup win.

Ganbat met the wealthy Mongolian businessman Ganbaatar Dagvadorj in the late 1990s, when both owned and trained horses in Mongolia. Ganbaatar and his brother Tserenjigmed, and their entourage, garbed in brightly colored festive dress (the long caftan-like garments are called deels) stopped the show when they strolled into the Keeneland paddock with Ganbat last October. Then their horse went out and won the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.

Ganbat has a simple barn name for Mongolian Saturday – Champion. But a couple months ago, the notion of a second Turf Sprint win seemed impossible. Mongolian Saturday went to Hong Kong and finished a decent fifth in December. In March, he got colic in Dubai and didn’t even make the Al Quoz Sprint there. Then it was on to England, where Mongolian Saturday was ninth in the King’s Stand, 11th in the July Cup. The all-international campaign seemed ill-conceived, imprudent, and, by the end of it, Mongolian Saturday looked finished.

Yet there he was Oct. 8, back in the Keeneland winner’s circle after winning the Grade 3 Woodford Stakes. On Nov. 5, Mongolian Saturday will be back for another go in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.

Ganbat had rented the Hyundai because his truck was in the shop for comprehensive servicing. The next morning he, his Mongolian driver, and Mongolian Saturday’s groom would hook a horse trailer to the truck and begin driving 2,000 miles from Hawthorne to Santa Anita. No more flying – not now, at least – for Mongolian Saturday. Air travel can be stressful for horses, and Ganbat believes stress nearly undid his horse.

“We find this problem, and now I understand this horse has for two years had an ulcer,” Ganbat said. “I think after Breeders’ Cup, this became a very big problem for him. When we come into England, don’t run good there. I said, ‘There’s something wrong with this horse.’”

An English veterinarian diagnosed a large ulcer, the largest, he told Ganbat, he had ever seen. An anti-ulcer medication program began, but Mongolian Saturday improved only marginally until he was turned out at Locust Grove Farm, where the owners keep their eight broodmares, and was treated additionally with royal jelly, a honey bee secretion. Ganbat sent Mongolian Saturday to be scoped following his Woodford win; the ulcer had shrunk 60 percent.

“He was a crazy horse the last two years, especially in paddock,” Ganbat said. “Crazy jumping and freezing. The last time at Keeneland before the race, he was so calm. I think all this nervous problem was from his stomach.”

When Ganbat came to the U.S. in 2010 he knew little of ulcers. The entire American training regimen was new. Mongolian horses, small, hardy creatures that are a pillar of Mongolian culture and history, generally race between 12 and 25 kilometers; their riders are children as young as 5. Field size is not a problem: One of Ganbat’s best wins came when a gelding he trained and owned beat 720 rivals in a 25-kilometer race.

“It’s so different training short distance here,” he said. “Training is totally different from Mongolian way. We need to breeze more because of short-distance horses. In Mongolia, people don’t pay so much attention to legs. I learn a lot about that. We have many, many horses in Mongolia – if one horse is broke, go to the next horse training.”

Ganbat watches disapprovingly as Mongolian Saturday jogs past on the Hawthorne track. “I don’t like this horse jogging,” he said. “When he jogs after galloping, he jogs much better.”

Mongolian Saturday, with his regular exercise rider and Ganbat’s assistant trainer, Santiago Aragon, in the saddle, turns around and breaks into a slow gallop. Faster and faster he runs, the pink vest Aragon wears to aid identification whipping off the far turn and into the homestretch at nearly race pace.

Back at the barn, Aragon flexes his hands, bends his arms, sore from trying to restrain Mongolian Saturday.

“I tried to hold him,” he tells Ganbat. “He’s getting so strong again. He ran off with me. He’s getting like he was this time last year.”

The last thing a rider wants to tell a trainer is how a mount got away during a controlled exercise, but Ganbat doesn’t even flinch. Aragon has worked with American racehorses longer than Ganbat. He gallops most of the 10 Ganbat has in the barn every day. Ganbat leans on him.

“I’ve been working for him for almost four years,” Aragon said. “When I started with him, he was training for more distance than other trainers. We would gallop for a long, long way. They’d run off or not relax too much.

“I’ve been around horses for 30 years, first working as a groom. Ganbat started communicating; we started talking about how other trainers trained, how I did things for other people, and after that we started training the way other trainers trained. One good thing about this trainer: He always asks for help and he’s good to talk to. He’s not a guy who only wants to do things his way. He wanted to have people tell him his mistakes, about training, about medicine, everything. He had to learn all that. He’s a good person to be around.”

Ganbat, also fluent in Russian, speaks English with a hybrid accent tinged by Chicago Spanglish. He grew up in the city, but each year visited his aunt’s home in the steppes, or grassland, of Mongolia, where he learned horses and riding. He has traveled extensively, been to every continent but Africa, and has 200 Mongolian horses of his own, mainly to sell for racing. When Ganbat spurned engineering in the early 1990s, a time of dramatic change in Mongolia during the end of the Soviet system, he took up horse trading, going to Russia, Kazakhstan, Chechnya to find racing stock.

Ganbat won’t reveal his age. “My Buddhist lama told me never tell people that,” he said.

Like most native Mongolians, Ganbat is a devout Buddhist. He prays for his horses’ successes before they race.

But the backstretch has a way of absorbing difference, and Ganbat is no pariah, especially at Hawthorne, and he, too, has genuine affection for his community. The 18-year Chicago-based jockey Carlos Montalvo rode Mongolian Saturday in the Woodford, the first graded-stakes win of his career. Ganbat won’t replace him in the Breeders’ Cup.

“He’s 38 years old,” Ganbat said. “I give him a good chance now. How many chances does he have left? If he can win Grade 1 race, Montalvo can be proud.”

This is the second Santa Anita trip for Ganbat and Mongolian Saturday. The first came in spring 2014, when Ganbat put his horse on a plane in Florida and sent him to the Portrero Grande.

“People say I am crazy because nobody flies from East Coast to West Coast just to run in a small stakes,” Ganbat said. “Champion was weak after the plane. We ran last. Also, my training then wasn’t good. I’m doing a little better now, but still need to learn many, many things. When I leaving Santa Anita, I say to an Asian man in the racing office, ‘I come back.’ Now I am back.”