Demanding horse owners keep heat on trainers

What do trainers Hal Wiggins, Jimmy Jerkens and Tim Ice have in common? They developed Grade I winners Rachel Alexandra, Quality Road and Summer Bird, respectively, and then had their star horses taken away.

Horse racing is a tough business. Loyalty is in short supply. As Gordon Gekko said to Bud Fox in the movie “Wall Street,” “If you want a friend, go buy a dog.” No wonder some owners and trainers will try whatever it takes to win.

Wiggins developed Rachel Alexandra through the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, where she scored a spectacular 20-length triumph. After the Oaks, new owner Jess Jackson bought the filly from Dolphus Morrison and turned her over to trainer Steve Asmussen, just as he had done previously with Curlin. No explanation was needed.

Still, the now-retired Wiggins was probably both happy and sad seeing Rachel Alexandra named Horse of the Year and knowing the role he played.

Quality Road’s dominating win at the Florida Derby proved that he was a freak. Jerkens knew he had a shot to win the Kentucky Derby if he could just keep the colt together. But bad feet kept Quality Road from participating in the Triple Crown.

Eventually owner Edward Evans fired Jerkens and transferred the colt to champion trainer Todd Pletcher. Quality Road just won the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park in track-record time, moving him atop the handicap division.

And finally, Ice, who won the Belmont Stakes, Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup and an Eclipse Award with Summer Bird, was fired by the Jayaramans for a “lack of communication.” In all, 25 of their horses were removed, leaving Ice with a paltry six-horse stable. This is a new low, even in a “what have you done for me lately” sport like racing.

The pressure to win is intense. Horse owners spend much more money than they take in, so most demand a great deal in return. A little heat is one thing, but many trainers face Dante’s Inferno.

HWS — The Horseplayer World Series is Feb. 18 to 20 at The Orleans. You can buy an unlimited number of entries at $1,000 apiece.

If you’ve never played in the HWS, find a partner and go. With a prize pool of an estimated $700,000, it’s as good as it gets.

Also, a $100 qualifier will be held Feb. 21 for the 2011 event.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.

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