Mike Marlow fights to stay in horse training

Nov 17, 2009 5:05 PM
Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

There was $25.5 million up for grabs in the Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita, but Mike Marlow didn’t have a shot at a penny of it. He had no horses running, not his own, anyway. The few he once had, he gave up. It was a matter of survival.

Marlow was one of many infinite and clandestine subplots on racing’s richest day, a behind-the-scenes soul who is barely a blip on the radar screen, as rare as a 1-2-3 inning by the Phillies’ bullpen.

But Marlow’s not complaining. He’s grateful to still be in the game he loves, after nearly abandoning his dream a few short months ago. Bad horses and a shrinking clientele forced him to give up his small public stable and seek greener pastures, to keep the wolf away from the door.

Thanks to an endorsement from former mentor D. Wayne Lukas and a hands-on work ethic, Marlow was able to land a job as full-time assistant with trainer Bob Baffert, a recent inductee in racing’s Hall of Fame, who has made Santa Anita his primary base of operations for two decades. He also has horses at Hollywood Park, where Marlow now supervises the show, and couldn’t be happier.

He’s got a steady income, for one thing, and some of the best thoroughbreds money can buy, for another. That’s not only good news for Mike, but for his wife, Stacy, and their two children, Amanda, 22, and Justin, eight.

"I had been thinking about giving up training on my own for about a year," said Marlow, who carries 135 pounds on a pencil-thin 5-9 frame. "When Wayne came to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup last year, he stabled his two horses at my barn. I was down to five horses and the future looked bleak. The economy was tough and my clientele had run out. Wayne knew what that was like, because it was one of the reasons he left Southern California.

"I had worked for Wayne for 13 years, including three in New York, and that’s where I wanted to go. Wayne said he would take me back, and that was fine with me, because I didn’t want to work for just any barn. I would only consider Bob or Wayne or maybe (Richard) Mandella. I wanted to be with a top trainer who had quality horses.

"Wayne wasn’t sure he wanted to stay in New York through the winter, but he later told me that he had given me the highest of recommendations to Bob when he called and asked about me. Bob called me a few days later. He made me a good offer, and I took it.

"The decision made sense. My expenses and overhead were high and you just can’t survive with cheap horses. Not only do you have to win races, you have to win good races. You can’t win $12,500 claiming races and make anything, because your day rate (money trainers are paid per day, per horses – anywhere from $75 to $120) doesn’t cover all your expenses, when you add in your feed, tack and payroll. It doesn’t matter who you are.

"You have to win races with good purses to show a profit, and I wasn’t doing that. A lot of small trainers are in the same boat. Their overhead is a lot greater than their income. Bob’s offer gave me a steady income and a chance to be around good horses again. Basically right now, I have Bob’s second string of 50 horses at Hollywood, and he told me at the beginning that he needed somebody who could train a horse and tighten the screws."

Marlow had a stern taskmaster in Lukas, whose protégés include Todd Pletcher, Dallas Stewart, Mark Hennig and Mike Maker. But Marlow was far from wet behind the ears when he hooked up with Lukas.

"The most important things Wayne taught me were how to train a horse and organization," Marlow said. "But I knew plenty about horses before I joined him. When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, I rode Quarter horses back near my home town in Pinckneyville, Illinois, about 50 miles south of St. Louis. We had show horses at home when I was growing up, so I’ve been around horses my whole life, and it’s all I really know and all I’ve really done."

And that’s why he’s stayed with it, even during his darkest hours.

"At least I get to make a living at doing what I love to do, and that’s more than a lot of people," said Marlow, who resides in Temple City, a few furlongs from Santa Anita. "They go to a factory every day and have to do a job they hate, and don’t have any choice.

"I’m content where I am now for two reasons: I have a steady income, and also, I have my own division. Bob has been very good to work for since I started with him on July 4. I feel he has confidence in me, he’s comfortable with me being on my own and he doesn’t have to worry about me doing the right thing.

"His program is similar in many ways to Wayne’s, so I put them together, and it works well for me. I’m in a good position right now and I have no intention of going anywhere. I don’t have to do a lot of PR. I just train the horses and do what I do best.

"You always look back on things, and perhaps I never should have left Wayne, but at a certain point, you have to try new ventures. Sometimes they don’t work, but I’ve been fortunate to get where I am. Not everybody is that lucky. Some guys are struggling with a handful of horses and have no other options. They either have to keep trying, or totally give up.

"Racing is different now than it was 20 years ago. When new clients come along, they go to the big names. It used to be they’d look for trainers with small barns, figuring they would take better care of their horse. That’s not the case anymore. It doesn’t matter if Bob Baffert or Doug O’Neill or John Sadler has 120 horses. That doesn’t stop an owner from giving them one more.

"Owners want to win, and that’s what they look at. They look at high percentage trainers and their program. They want a trainer in the top five in the standings. That’s how the business is now, and it’s unfortunate for the small guy. He just doesn’t have a prayer."

Except for guys like Mike Marlow.

THE HOMESTRETCH: Tom Ward, a steward with the California Horse Racing Board since 1971, says Zenyatta’s Breeders’ Cup Classic win was the best day of racing he has seen since he began as a racing official nearly four decades ago . . . Reports from Padua Stables say that promising maiden winner Global Force suffered a minor injury in training following his recent Belmont Park victory. The 2-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway is in Ocala for recovery and will rejoin trainer Tom Albertrani at Gulfstream Park early next year, hopefully in time for pursuit of the Triple Crown.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Ed Golden

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