Even though it’s a job he’s enjoyed for nearly 30 years, Ron Ellis trains horses like a guy who works at the DMV; no fanfare, no high-fives, no flash, no flare.
It’s much more than a 9 to 5 stint, however. In addition to his wife, Amy, and their two daughters, Elizabeth and Laura, training horses is Ron’s life. He has established a successful foundation thanks to his philosophy of stability first, sensationalism second.
He foresees no change in that custom even though he and two of his horses will be the focus of the racing world over the next nine weeks as they journey on a path he hopes will lead to the Kentucky Derby on May 7. Declan’s Moon, a gelded son of Malibu Moon, is the male 2-year-old champion of 2004 who is expected to make his 3-year-old debut in the Santa Catalina Stakes on Saturday. Don’t Get Mad, beaten once in three starts, is scheduled to make his next start in the San Felipe Stakes on March 19.
"I don’t know if it helps in training horses but it helps me cope with things," Ellis said of his laissez faire approach. "I’ve been doing this a long time and you experience highs and lows. Certain races I can get pretty high after the race. I just don’t get too shook up before the race because I know there are so many things that can go wrong."
So far, except for weather in Southern California better suited for umbrellas than sun glasses, Ellis and his two 3-year-olds are on course.
"When you expect to win it’s a little different than when it’s a surprise," Ellis said in explaining why he seldom loses his equilibrium. "I got pretty excited at the Del Mar Futurity when we weren’t expected to win (and upset 1-10 favorite Roman Ruler by a neck). But overall I try to keep on an even keel. I don’t get too shook up if a horse gets beat because it’s only one race. It’s just my personality, I guess."
Ellis made it to the Run for the Roses for the first time in 2003 with Atswhatimtalknbout, who finished an eventful fourth, beaten less than two lengths.
"Having been there before can be an advantage but I think training up to a big race is training up to a big race," said Ellis, who will be 45 on March 10. "It wasn’t the first time I had to ship and run in a major race. We kind of stayed at Churchill Downs a month before the race so it really wasn’t like we shipped in."
Atswhatimtalknbout was almost 9-1 so the urgency to win was insignificant compared to this year, since Declan’s Moon is the Future Book Derby favorite and Don’t Get Mad created a buzz among wise guys with his fast-closing second in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes.
"There’s a certain amount of pressure in all the big races," Ellis said. "I don’t look at the Derby as a race you have to do anything different for than you would any other big race. The Derby is a huge race but you don’t train any differently than you would for any Grade I, really.
"Well, we’ll find out if there’s more pressure in training the favorite. Right now I don’t think there is but as time gets closer and we’re still the favorite then I guess it will be a little bit different, yeah."
Like all horsemen in Southern California, Ellis has had to dance through the rain drops to keep his stock racing-fit.
"We’ve been pretty lucky up to this point," he said. "When the first rain storm of two or three weeks hit we were just kind of walking with Declan’s Moon anyway, so it didn’t really hurt him that much. But in his works so far he’s shown me that he didn’t take a step backwards.
"If anything he took a step forward. I’ve been surprised at how well he’s galloped out in his works and how fast he’s been working. He just hasn’t been blowing at all when he comes back. I think and I hope that missing one work isn’t going to be that big a deal. Everybody’s in the same boat."
Mace and Samantha Siegel own Declan’s Moon and race as Jay Em Ess Stable, while Public Storage magnate B. Wayne Hughes owns Don’t Get Mad. Ellis has the task of training each horse to win for separate owners. Essentially it’s a case of doing your best and letting the chips fall where they may.
"That’s what you do," Ellis said. "Actually each horse is quite different in makeup and I train them differently. Declan’s Moon has more natural speed. Don’t Get Mad is a very professional horse that sits off the pace, but they’re both delightful to train, they’re smart, and they act like horses that have run 10, 20 times. They both get the idea and are really kind to train."
That said, don’t expect a back flip or a handstand from Ellis if he wins the Kentucky Derby. Not that he wouldn’t be entitled.
Since Feb. 9 when Jeff Mullins’ horses have been ordered to stay in a detention barn for 24 hours prior to running for violation of carbon dioxide levels, or "milk shakes," the trainer has won with only one of 25 starters. Prior to that, he had won with 17 of 50.
”¡ With a record 40-plus inches of rain in the two months since Santa Anita opened, maybe it’s just God’s way of telling the state there’s too much racing.