03/21/2013 10:45AM

Spiral Stakes: Greenhill's mid-life career change to training pans out

John Englehardt
Trainer Jeff Greenhill, a former chemical engineer, shoots for his first graded stakes win Saturday, when he sends Mac the Man in the Grade 3 Spiral at Turfway Park.

FLORENCE, Ky. – There were agonizing moments when Jeff Greenhill questioned why he ever gave up the security of being a government-employed chemical engineer to become a Thoroughbred horse trainer.

“One morning a few years ago, I was driving through the split in the hills near Carrollton,” said Greenhill, referring to the monotonous drive on Interstate 71 in Kentucky. “And I broke out in a sweat. I thought, ‘Where in the world is my next win coming from?’ All I had in the barn was manes and tails.”

It has been nearly 17 years since Greenhill, now 57, took out his license to train horses. In all that time, the Alabama native has never been as close to reaching a career summit as he will be Saturday. He and his wife of nearly 30 years, Sherri, will be at Turfway Park to watch Mac the Man attempt to advance along the Kentucky Derby trail as one of the top contenders in the Turfway showcase, the Grade 3, $550,000 Spiral Stakes.

Mac the Man, a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred by El Corredor, is owned by a six-way partnership and races in the green silks of Sherri Greenhill. The colt enters with a three-race winning streak, all of them over the Turfway Polytrack, and will face by far the toughest task of his nascent career in the 1 1/8-mile Spiral.

“He may not be a Derby horse,” said Greenhill. “He might not even be a Spiral horse. But I tell you what – he’s a darn nice horse. So far he’s been a real joy.”

[SPIRAL STAKES: Get Turfway past performances, watch video previews]

Born in Sheffield, Ala., and raised in nearby Russellville, some 90 minutes from Huntsville in the state’s northwest corner, Greenhill lived his entire life in Alabama until he and Sherri made a calculated move to Louisville, Ky., in April 1994. He had graduated from Auburn University with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and went straight to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority, where he held down a nice-paying job for 18 years.

As a hobby, Greenhill owned and trained Quarter Horses in Alabama while also dabbling in young Thoroughbreds.

“The TVA was offering a buyout to employees as a means to purge its payroll, and obviously, it was meant for some of the older people,” Greenhill recalled during a recent interview at Turfway. “And here I was, 38 years old, and I said: ‘I’ll take it.’ My co-workers got around me in a semi-circle and all said, ‘Huh?’ ”

Greenhill wanted to do what he loved, and that was work with horses.

“I had it all planned out,” he said. “I’d been coming to Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton for years to pinhook weanlings, selling them back as yearlings. I did OK with that. But I still wasn’t getting up every day working with horses. That’s what I really wanted to do. Sherri and I had socked away a little money. I took the buyout, and we loaded up the truck like the Beverly Hillbillies and moved to Kentucky.”

Sherri, now 51, was building her own career as a health-care administrator, and she was flexible in terms of leaving Alabama. The couple has no children.

“I had just left my position at Muscle Shoals [Ala.] Medical Center,” said Sherri, who grew up in the small town of Paragould, Arkansas. “We were kind of in a transition period. Jeff came in one day and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I said there’s nothing holding us back. Let’s go, let’s do it.”

“We moved to where the lines of the horse and health-care industries intersect,” Jeff Greenhill said. “And that was Louisville. There are quite a few major health-care companies there.” Sherri went to work at a facility now called The Brook and has been there nearly 19 years. The couple since has moved to LaGrange, Ky., about 20 miles northeast of Louisville and more conveniently located toward Turfway.

After working as a hotwalker for D. Wayne Lukas for about a month, Greenhill became a groom for Pete Vestal, who at that time was operating a major stable. Greenhill worked “about six or seven months” for Vestal, whose manner of conducting himself as a professional has become something of a model for Greenhill.

“Pete wasn’t one of those screamers you sometimes see on the backside,” Greenhill said. “One day he was really, really hot at one of the exercise boys. So he writes on the dry-erase board, ‘33 is too fast for 3 furlongs!’ And that was it.”

Greenhill then worked as an assistant for trainer Donnie Habeeb for about 1 1/2 years before deciding he was ready to go out on his own. His first starter came at Turfway in 1996.

“I’d told Sherri my goal was to win four races that first year,” Greenhill said. “We won 11. My first winner came with my third starter. I was so excited I ordered 12 win photos. I found out I only needed one.”

Their routine became set. Jeff raced mostly in Kentucky while also incorporating River Downs and Indiana into his circuit. Later, he became a summer regular at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania. Snappy Little Tune, a winner of 14 races and more than $380,000, was the big horse of his early years, but more typical of his runners was El Bomba, a low-level claimer he began training in the fall of 2006.

On Jan. 12, 2012, Greenhill sent out El Bomba to win a conditioned $5,000 claiming route at Turfway by a nose, a win that Greenhill laughingly attributed to the then-13-year-old horse having what he called “a parrot mouth.” It came in El Bomba’s 100th career start, and Greenhill was ecstatic. Remarkably, it was the second time he had saddled a horse to win its 100th start, the first being T.K.’s Turn at River Downs in 2008.

“But that’s a pretty useless handicapping angle, I’d imagine,” he slyly told Daily Racing Form the next day. “Some horses are just born with better synovial fluids than others, I guess.”

Through the years, grinding out a decent living was difficult. Until last year, when the stable hit a peak with $814,340, earnings averaged less than $300,000 a year.

“During those years we weren’t doing very well, I would tell Sherri, ‘Just get me to May, just get me to May,’ ” Greenhill said. “That became my mantra. That’s when Presque Isle would open, and you could make a little money there even if your horses ran second or third.”

This was just a few years ago. “We were having to dip into our savings pretty good,” Greenhill said. “Honestly, I don’t know how Sherri held it all together for us. She’s been pretty amazing through it all.”

Then along came the kind of horse for which Greenhill quit the TVA those many moons ago.

Mac the Man was produced by a mare named Marchmont; Greenhill had trained his half-brother, Cam the Man. Greenhill took notice of the colt at the 2011 Keeneland September Yearling Sale and bought him for $23,000.

“I almost always put together these little partnerships for all our horses and run them in Sherri’s name,” he said. “We own 20 percent of Mac the Man. We gave him his name because of Cam the Man [Mac being Cam spelled backward], hoping he’d be as fast, but sounder.”

Greenhill said Cam the Man, a 2006 foal by Mountain Cat, might’ve been the fastest horse he ever trained. Cam the Man won 3 of 6 starts, “but he was big and bulky and hard to keep sound. Eventually, that took its toll. In his seventh start, he broke down at Mountaineer Park and we had to put him down.”

Conversely, Mac the Man is on the small side, perhaps no more than 15 hands, with an efficient stride and sustained speed that have carried him to 4 wins in 7 career starts, all of them over synthetics. He enters the Spiral with the momentum of victories in a December allowance; the Turfway Prevue in early January; and the 96 Rocks Stakes in early February in his first try around two turns. Greenhill intentionally skipped the next race in the Turfway stakes series, the March 2 Battaglia Memorial.

“I thought I might be running him a little too much, especially if we were serious about trying to make the [Kentucky] Derby,” Greenhill said. “He hasn’t missed a beat in his training up to this.” Last Friday, Greenhill watched intently from the Turfway backstretch as Mac the Man had his final prerace workout, a five-furlong breeze in company in 1:02.40.

Clearly, with more well-regarded runners such as Uncaptured, Balance the Books, and Capo Bastone among a full field in the Spiral, Mac the Man “has a lot to prove, I know,” said Greenhill. “Like what has he beaten, and can he handle the dirt? His breeding indicates he could. All I know is he hasn’t done a lot wrong so far and he deserves a shot at this.”

Greenhill insists he does not have Derby Fever and said he will calmly explore his options beyond the Spiral. However, family and friends back home in Alabama don’t seem to have quite the same outlook.

“My sister Susan is already talking about Derby hats,” he said, laughing. “I told her, ‘Stop it. Stop it right now.’ ”

Not surprisingly, as Mac the Man began to show promise, Greenhill fielded phone calls from bloodstock agents looking for a ready-made Derby prospect. “Maybe a half-dozen tire-kickers,” he said. “I never put a price on him and didn’t want anybody else to put a number on it.

“It’s like [the late trainer] Blackie Huffman used to say: You spend all your time trying to get a good horse, and then when you get one and sell it, what are you going to do with the money? Go try to buy another one just like it,” he said. “It’s a vicious circle, an exercise in futility. Say we could’ve gotten $1 million for this horse. You split that up six ways and pay Uncle Sam, and nobody’s life has been changed. I do know that those win pictures we’ve been getting are worth a lot in making us some great memories.”

So, regrets? Greenhill has had a few, but he likes to refer back to when he was seriously contemplating a career change that less adventurous men would not attempt.

“I was at Keeneland one day inspecting weanlings with [the late horseman] Ben Walden Sr., and when I told him that I wanted to train racehorses, he didn’t laugh out loud,” Greenhill said. “Right then, I thought, well, boy, you’re nearly 40, it’s about time to get started. And now here we are.”