12/11/2009 12:00AM

Spanning the globe for horse sense


If the emirate of Dubai, its ruling Maktoums and their high-profile Godolphin Stable of Thoroughbreds are in a financial twist, as recent headlines suggest, it's probably news to the international crew of young folks who have been bedded down since late October in England's horse country of Newmarket.

They are part of the Darley Flying Start program, a two-year course of equine education that takes its students to the most stimulating corners of the Thoroughbred world, both physically and intellectually. The reading list is deep, homework is due, and an international driver's license is required.

Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum's Darley, being the most global of racing and breeding operations, is well-positioned to offer such an exotic opportunity for those dead-set on a long-term career in the business. Admission to the program is not easy - applicants must bring an undergraduate degree, plus a healthy amount of hands-on experience and robust self-confidence to the table - and the course of travel and study can be daunting to all but the most adventurous.

For instance, the class of 2009-2011 commenced in August at Darley's Kildangan Stud in Ireland, where part of the curriculum was set at University College of Dublin, then at the end of October moved to Darley's Dalham Stud in Newmarket. After a holiday respite, the class spends January through July in Lexington, during an intense period of foaling, breeding and racing, then, after another brief break, reconvenes at Darley's Hunter Valley facility in New South Wales, Australia.

Their second winter will be spent at the heart of the operation in Dubai, followed by spring back in Ireland and graduation at Dalham Stud, in July of 2011. I get mentally drained and desperately homesick just reading such a syllabus, but then, I'm not 24 anymore. Mike Wilson is.

At the very least, Wilson has the pedigree for such an enterprise. He is the son of Dr. David Wilson, a professor in the department of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine and director of the California Center for Equine Health and Performance. Mike earned his bachelor's degree in equine animal science at Davis, then worked at the racetrack for Richard Mandella, Doug O'Neill, and Bob Baffert. What a surprise . . . Wilson wants to be a trainer.

Of course, there's nothing stopping him from being one right now. A license, a little backing, and Wilson could have a 10-horse stable of Cal-bred maiden claimers tomorrow if he wanted, and finish his education in the school of very hard knocks. His father, well aware of the pressures to just dive into a training career, urged him to pursue acceptance to the Flying Start program. Hundreds apply each year.

"He's so focused and driven toward his goal of being a trainer, and different folks might say that he was already on the right track," David Wilson said. "I don't think there's a lot of people at the track who fully appreciate the breadth of education available, and what it can do for them. Mike has had aspirations at a national or potentially international level. This has really opened his eyes to those possibilities."

Wilson is one of four Americans in their Flying Start class of 12, including William Mayer and John Jessie of Kentucky, and Katherine Williams of Virginia. There are also students from Ireland, New Zealand, France, Northern Ireland, India and China.

They study anatomy, physiology, reproduction and infectious disease. There was on-site instruction in judging yearings from John Ferguson, Sheikh Mohammed's most trusted bloodstock adviser. At various times they are paired with agents and trainers at sales and training grounds - Wilson has been with the well-known British trainers Mark Johnston and Jeremy Noseda. At the end of the Irish course work, the class presented formal papers to an audience of industry leaders and ambassadors from their home countries. There is a reason the program is called Flying Start.

A man of his time, Wilson has been maintaining a blog (www.msrwilsonracing.blogspot.com), and it's full of the typical kid away at school stuff, like cramming for final exams in Ireland after a journey to watch Sea the Stars win the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. (By contrast, I recall working my ASU finals around an afternoon riding the fake waves at Big Surf.) In one entry, from Newmarket, Wilson noted how he and his classmates have been exposed to the variety of training options available to European horsemen, including synthetic surfaces that are usable year-round.

"After talking to some of the experts over here, I've realized that we made several mistakes in California with our installation of our synthetic tracks," Wilson wrote. "After seeing how they're supposed to be when properly installed, I'd have to say that there is no better surface in the world. I've also received some direct knowledge of how these tracks work by running and training over them myself. Several of the team members have began running every day on the Polytrack and it has really given me some better insight on how these surfaces feel to a horse."

Mike Wilson will be 26 by the time he graduates from the Flying Start international program, and who knows what the business will be like by then? The point, though, is in the pursuit of knowledge and exposure to pockets of opportunity that are not necessarily obvious from one's own back porch. There is never a bad time to learn more.

A young woman, in her mid-twenties and friend of the family, once approached Charlie Whittingham about the idea of going back to school to study veterinary medicine. Whittingham, a grade-school dropout, offered nothing but encouragement.

"But Charlie," she said, "by the time I finish all the courses and everything I'll be 30 years old."

"So what," Whittingham replied. "You're going to be 30 anyway, so you might as well be a vet, too."