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Dirty Jobs: Assistant Trainer

Horses, Assistant Trainer

If assistant trainers got paid by the hour they would be millionaires! These hard working and dedicated individuals log in more time at the track than anyone else..

Who’s at the barn to meet a horse shipping in at midnight? Who’s still on the backside watching their horse cool out after running in the last race? Who’s returning to the track at 2 a.m. to check on a sick horse? The assistant trainer.

Assistant trainers work between 50 and 100 hours a week. They are first to arrive at the barn in the dark early morning hours and last to leave after sundown. Assistant duties include making the set list, communicating with the vet, blacksmith, dentist, and bookkeeper, entering horses to race, recording workout times, doing paperwork, checking legs and feet for signs of injury, checking feed tubs for missed meals, paddock schooling upcoming runners, saddling for the race, managing grooms, hot walkers, and riders, and scheduling workouts and races with agents and jockeys. The list of duties goes on and on and on. Some assistants ride the pony and even gallop racehorses themselves. Above all their job is to care for the barn as if they themselves are the trainer.

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Bob Baffert’s assistant Jimmy Barnes escorts Kentucky Derby entry Chitu to the track with his pony.

Some assistants are 100 percent in charge of a large string of 30 or more horses and report to the trainer on progress and important information several times a day. Most of these assistants work for trainers who have several strings at other racetracks and therefore they only make it to see each group of horses periodically. They rely exclusively on their assistant to communicate any and all important details about the horses ability and soundness. Other assistants work for a trainer who stays at one home base track and they work hand-in-hand, sharing the barn responsibilities.

There are basically two types of assistants, the type who wants to go out on their own one day and have their own clients and the type wants to remain an assistant. The assistants that want to go out on their own usually try to work for the best barn they can so they can learn from the best. They often collect knowledge from multiple trainers until they feel ready to look for horse owners who will be their clients. This is not easy and all but the most determined future trainers turn their back on this dream once they realize how hard it is.

There are a few great assistant jobs out there that pay so well going out on your own seems an undesirable choice. Working with a barn full of stake horses and getting a strong salary with great bonuses is more enticing than trying to start over on your own with no guaranteed paycheck. Some assistants don’t want to take the leap and have the responsibility of being a business owner. While an assistant trainer is often in the “don’t shoot the messenger” position of having to break bad news to the trainer, it is the trainer who is ultimately responsible for each and every horse and all adversity that may fall on the barn.

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Assistant trainer Kyle Zorn shows off his Kentucky Derby sticker showing his faith in Take Charge Indy, one of his charges as an assistant to Pat Byrne.

Almost every renowned trainer was an assistant for another great trainer first. Todd Pletcher, Mike Maker, and Dallas Stewart were each assistants for D. Wayne Lukas, Neil Drysdale was an assistant to Charlie Whittingham, and Wally Dollase was an assistant to Noble Threewit.

Just like any other job on the backside of the track, a license to work there must be obtained from that state’s racing board. For example, to become an assistant trainer in the state of California you must pass a 100 question multiple choice exam, a two hour verbal test with the state vet and a practical test administered by a steward.

This job is not for the feint of heart. You will find yourself hopelessly committed to the job, so tired you will fall asleep in your dirty clothes with no dinner or shower, and you may lose friends because of your schedule. However, the emotional high of winning a race with the knowledge that one day that could be your name in the Daily Racing Form will trump the exhausting days, relentless schedule and the hardships witnessed in the line of duty.

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