01/01/2014 2:43PM

Turfway Park: Hammond quietly piles up winners in male-dominated sport

Pat Lang Photography
Kim Hammond (center), shown with horse owners Ron and Carol Farrell, had won 1,998 races through Tuesday, the most by a female trainer.

FLORENCE, Ky. – It hasn’t been glamorous, but hard work and dedication have made Kim Hammond a success on the blue-collar racing circuits of the Midwest.

Hammond’s destiny was that of a bust-ass backstretcher of Midwestern American racetracks, a person defined simply by her willingness to put in long hours to see what ends the means achieve. Now 56 and nearing her 35th year as a trainer, Hammond is on the threshold of becoming the first female trainer of Thoroughbreds to win 2,000 races in North America, a number that may impress some onlookers, but not her.

“I don’t even know what it means,” she said in a recent interview at Turfway Park, “except that it’s a lot for me.”

Through Tuesday, Hammond had won 1,998 races, putting her well ahead of her closest female pursuers, Christine Janks (1,668), Kathleen O’Connell (1,571), and Stephanie Beattie (1,283).

While female trainers have occasionally made their marks on the game, men continue to dominate the profession – or as the great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray once wrote, “It’s as all-male as Custer’s Last Stand.”

Among the women who have earned some measure of fame in the sport are Jenine Sahadi, who won 45 graded stakes, including back-to-back runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 1996-97 with Lit de Justice and Elmhurst before retiring in 2011; the late Dianne Carpenter, a former Miss Mississippi who remains the only female trainer to have two Kentucky Derby starters (also-rans Biloxi Indian and Kingpost); Shelley Riley, who saddled Casual Lies to a runner-up finish in the 1992 Derby; Kathy Ritvo, who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November with Mucho Macho Man; and Linda Rice, the New York-based trainer who has the highest stable earnings among female trainers ($41.5 million) and who was the leading trainer at the 2009 Saratoga meet, when she edged Todd Pletcher by a 20-19 margin.

But overall, training largely remains a male dominion, with D. Wayne Lukas owning the career earnings record with almost $267 million and the late Dale Baird having the most wins, 9,445. While Hammond’s career stable earnings ($13.2 million) are modest even in comparison with Rice’s, she is basically glad just to have a job she loves.

“I’m married to these horses,” she said when asked about never having married. “It’s a round-the-clock kind of job where these horses need caring for.”

Laughing, she added: “My dad gave us the choice of going to college or do this – and I think I should’ve gone to college.”

She is the oldest of four adult children of Everett Hammond, a hardscrabble southern Illinois horseman who probably has the least recognizable name of any trainer in the all-time top 25 in wins at North American racetracks.

The elder Hammond retired in 2008 with 3,425 wins, the vast majority at Fairmount Park, ranking him 18th on the all-time list, just ahead of Pletcher (3,419 through Monday). He topped the national standings in 1967 with 200 wins and was a local legend at Fairmount and the old Cahokia Downs when having upward of 100 horses in his care at any given time.

“All I can say is Kim has always been a hard worker,” Everett Hammond, 77, said recently by phone while working just outside his hometown of Salem, Ill. “She’s worked around horses her entire life, first for me and then on her own. She’s had some tough times, like every trainer, but her hard work has gotten her through.”

Everett Hammond is still very active, albeit outside of racing. He buys cattle for a commission firm in Greenville, Ill., located some 50 miles east of St. Louis. His sons, Steve and Mike, dabbled in racing but now work as railroad engineers.

Meanwhile, Kim Hammond has soldiered on, making deep commitments to racing in Indiana, where slots-fueled purses have made investing in the business worthwhile to small-time trainers and owners.

Although she works for quite a few outside clients, a fair number of her horses are homebred Indiana-breds. In early 2008, she moved from her Illinois farm (her father bought it from her) to a five-acre farm in the Indianapolis suburb of Shelbyville to raise her own runners.

Much of her efforts are concentrated there, although she regularly maintains a racing stable at nearby Indiana Downs or, when it’s closed during winter, a string of about 20 horses at Turfway Park, from where she makes the 90-minute one-way commute to and fro several times a week, depending on when her presence is needed.

On a damp, chilly mid-December morning at Turfway, Hammond arrived shortly before dawn after driving in from the farm to watch several of her horses breeze over the Polytrack surface. She said she is a major proponent of the synthetic surface because of how horses tend to stay sound when training regularly over it.

“Horses just do good on it,” she said.

The Hammond stable is about as bread-and-butter as it gets, with just four stakes wins since 1992, all at Fairmount, the latest in 2004. Hammond makes no apologies – scouring the condition book to find the proper spots for relatively cheap horses is the niche she has carved out for herself and one that has allowed her to survive all these years.

Paul Martin, a St. Louis businessman and horse owner, has employed her as his trainer since 2007 after previously having horses with her father and her uncle, trainer Jerry Hammond.

“First and foremost, Kim is honest and straightforward,” Martin said. “She’ll run horses in the right spot where they have a chance to make some money, and she’s an exceptional hard worker. Her family has a rich tradition in this part of the country, and I’m happy to have her.”

Statistically, the peak years for Hammond have come in 1998 ($837,216 in purse earnings) and 2004 (97 wins); in 2013, she had 30 wins and $406,861 in earnings. She has been the leading trainer at a race meet on two occasions: once at the long-defunct Bluegrass Downs in Paducah, Ky., and in the summer of 2003 at Ellis Park.

Asked about her favorite horses, she named three: Battle Cat, a winner of 17 races; Awesome Girl (15 wins); and Ted’s Last Chance (seven wins). Curiously enough, all were foals of 1983.

“I’ve had my share of really nice horses,” she said. “Not anything in the range of somebody like [Wayne] Catalano, but my fair share.”

Hammond said she tries to keep up with the national racing scene, mostly by keeping her television tuned to the racing channels, but her responsibilities often preclude her from paying too much attention. Asked how many hours a week she works, she said: “Too damn many. Besides all the hands-on work, there’s the phone, and the bookwork, and the farm work, and everything else. It never ends, you know? There’s always something going on.”

She said she paid off her Illinois farm in the early 2000s and briefly “got to enjoy my life,” but that she hasn’t taken a vacation since moving to Indiana. Her existence seems to be one of perpetual motion, as she was en route to a horsemen’s meeting when reached by phone on a recent morning.

“This is my job,” she said. “Everyone gets up and goes to work. This is what I do.”