02/24/2009 12:00AM

Triumphs of horsemanship or chemistry?


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - When I wrote a recent column about "supertrainers" whose feats are so amazing that they raise suspicions about the use of illegal substances, horsemen at Gulfstream Park protested vehemently. A committee of trainers declared that these allegations brought "discredit to the game."

Some of these very trainers have records of drug violations that should make them hesitant to accuse anyone of discrediting the game. But at least one trainer cited in the column does have the standing to voice his objections. Marty Wolfson is, in some ways, the quintessential supertrainer. He wins races at a phenomenal rate; when he acquires horses, they frequently improve by many lengths over the best previous form of their lives. Yet Wolfson has never received a significant suspension for a drug infraction. His record of consistent success has earned him respect as a skilled horseman. He possesses a unique background that prepared him for his chosen career.

Wolfson was born into a life of affluence on Miami Beach. His father, Louis Wolfson, was a fabulously successful conglomerate builder and wheeler-dealer until he went to prison for securities fraud. He was also a force in the Thoroughbred business as the owner of Harbor View Farm and the 1977 Triple Crown winner, Affirmed. His son was enthralled by the racing game; as a teenager Marty watched the nation's best horses and knew many of its greatest trainers. He loved not just the glamour of the sport but the gritty world of the backstretch and the day-to-day routine of the business. Despite his father's objections, he obtained a license as a horse trainer in 1970, when he was 18.

"My father thought it was a tough life," he said, "but I knew that it would make me happy."

Around the same time, the young Wolfson developed another passion: weightlifting and bodybuilding. His exertions got enough results that he was featured in a Playgirl pictorial in the 1970s. Like almost all bodybuilders, he is obsessed with vitamins, supplements, and training regimens, and he said, "I apply a lot of those same things to the horses." (Asked about steroids, Wolfson said he never took them but administered them selectively to certain horses until the substances were banned.)

He said the greatest lesson he learned from weightlifting is that training lightly gets better results than overdoing it. "Less is more," Wolfson said. "I never overtrain."

For much of his career, based at Miami's Calder Race Course, Wolfson has won races at approximately a 20 percent clip, an excellent batting average. Now the skeptics might suggest that he has become almost too good. In 2008 he won with 30 percent of his starters, and in recent years he has performed some extraordinary training feats. One of them put him into the national spotlight and sent his career into an upward trajectory.

Wolfson took over the training of Miesque's Approval from Hall of Famer Bill Mott shortly before the horse turned 7. The old campaigner's best days appeared to be behind him; he had most recently finished out of the money in a $50,000 claiming race. Yet after less than three months in Wolfson's care, Miesque's Approval was rejuvenated, and at the end of the 2006 season he unleashed an explosive rally to win the $2 million Breeders' Cup Mile.

How did the trainer do it? "There were a lot of things involved," Wolfson replied. "But the main thing I did was to switch shoes, going from a size 3 to size 6."

When I expressed incredulity that a new pair of shoes could account for such a dramatic change, Wolfson said: "I disagree with you on that. Miesque's Approval had always been a very sulky horse. He didn't like to train."

The shoes and some other changes improved his attitude, Wolfson said, and the improvement in his form followed.

Ikigai had failed to finish in the money in two starts for champion trainer Todd Pletcher when he moved to Wolfson's barn and became an impressive stakes winner.

"He was foot-sore and sore all over," Wolfson said. "I use a magnetic blanket that I put on him every day. He practically lives in hot water with Epsom salts."

Mending Fences was a $25,000 claimer until Wolfson got him and turned him into a stakes winner. Rockefeller had won only a maiden race in 15 career starts before he entered Wolfson's barn and improved to win a stakes race. Motovato's best Beyer Speed Figure was a 74 while he was in the Pletcher barn, but in his first start for Wolfson he exploded to win by 15 lengths and earn a figure of 111. In all of these cases, Wolfson credited basic horsemanship - shoeing, nutrition, treating soreness, etc. - for the turnarounds.

Sensing my skepticism, Wolfson recalled his younger days when he observed legendary horsemen such as Laz Barrera and Allen Jerkens, who possessed skills that set them far apart from their contemporaries. "What did you think," Wolfson asked me, "when Onion beat Secretariat at Saratoga?"

That victory for Jerkens was one of the great training miracles of all time - a supertrainer feat if there ever was one. In 1973 I accepted Jerkens's achievement at face value; I regarded him as one of the greatest horse trainers on the face of the Earth, and still do. But 1973 was a more innocent era. Had Onion won in 2009, doubters would suspect Jerkens of possessing some high-octane rocket fuel.

It might seem unfair or inconsistent that much of the racing world reveres Jerkens while distrusting the contemporary supertrainers, but there is a sound basis for today's cynicism. Jerkens was a unique figure in 1973, but today there are countless trainers with the power to improve horses suddenly and dramatically. Some rapidly emerge from obscurity and compile achievements that the greatest horsemen of all time would envy. It is difficult to believe that these trainers succeed because they know so much more about basic horse care than top professionals in their business. As a result, even a trainer such as Wolfson - who has earned respect over a long period of time - won't get the benefit of the doubt when he performs his amazing feats.

(c) 2009, The Washington Post