07/07/2008 12:00AM

Trainer's patient approach keeps horses effective in their later years


Trainer Sharon Ross does well by doing right by her horses.

Ross races her 2-year-olds sparingly, if at all. Her help spends extra hours working on her horses' legs, and when her horses are hurt, they are turned out immediately and they stay turned out until they are well past the point where there is a heightened risk of re-injury.

As a result, Ross's horses routinely campaign effectively when they are 6 or 7 and often when they are older. The Ross-trained Military Hawk, who retired as the second-richest Washington-bred of all time with $686,128 in earnings, won his final race for a $40,000 claiming tag as a 10-year-old in 1997.

"Horses should last a long time," she said. "If you take good care of them and keep them interested, there is really no reason they can't be effective at 8 or 9. I think we've shown that over the years."

Ross, a 52-year-old native of Virginia, picked up her training philosophy, along with just about everything else she knows about horses, from her husband, trainer Larry Ross.

"Larry taught me everything," she said. "When we met, I was a cocktail waitress in Maryland and he was a trainer. We got married in June of 1979 and we moved to Washington that fall. We worked on a farm and then for another trainer, and we started our own stable at Longacres in 1981 with two horses. The next year we got Chum Salmon, and we were on our way."

With the help of Chum Salmon, who won the then-Grade 2 Longacres Mile in 1985, the Ross stable grew to 60 horses by the time Longacres closed in 1992. Up to that time, all of the couple's horses raced in Larry's name. After 1992, Larry campaigned roughly half of the stable in California and Sharon began racing the others in her own name at Yakima Meadows. With the exception 1996, which was the inaugural year of racing at Emerald Downs, she has been the barn's trainer of record in Washington ever since. Now she is the barn's sole trainer, as Larry retired a couple of years ago to tend to the couple's farm.

Ross's conservative approach to racing her horses has not short-changed her owners. She has won 418 races under her own name (Larry Ross has 885 wins), and she ranks fourth in stakes wins at Emerald Downs with 23. She has had particular success in route races, and many attribute that success to what is known at Emerald as the "Sharon Ross method" of working horses.

"It's really the Neil Drysdale method, because I picked it up from watching Drysdale's horses work when we took Chum Salmon to Hollywood Park," Ross said. "What I do is jog them backwards from the quarter chute to the wire, then turn them around and gallop them to the starting point of the work. They work to the wire, then they gallop out to the eighth pole, so they always gallop seven furlongs after the work. It's a way to build air and fitness. I hate to run them when their not fit, so this makes sense to me."

The best horse currently under Ross's care is a sprinter, however. Multiple stakes winner Starbird Road was the champion sprinter at Emerald Downs in 2006, but he injured a tendon in May 2007. What happened next is instructive. Starbird Road was treated with stem-cell therapy and given the rest of last year off. Then he was given all of this year off.

"He'll come back next year, and I'll know he is completely healed and ready to go," Ross said. "I know this guy. He'll still want to do it, and he'll be as good as ever. He'll only be 8 years old."