Sunday, February 26, 2012
Heather Craig, Assistant Trainer
Even as Saratoga Springs, N.Y. native Heather Craig pursued a biology degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., there was little doubt her future was on the racetrack. Her mother Bernadette worked for W.C. “Mike” Freeman, renowned as the trainer of champion filly and mare Shuvee. Bernadette had Heather on a horse before she could walk, and she started galloping horses for Freeman as a teenager, before school and on the weekends. When she turned 16, Heather went to work for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott for three years, also freelancing for Neil Howard and Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley. Now 25, Heather has been an assistant the past four years for H. Graham Motion and is responsible for the day-to-day training of as many as 10 horses at Tampa Bay Downs. She was on the track last May at Churchill Downs when Animal Kingdom roared through the stretch to capture the 137th Kentucky Derby.
I’ve had Lasik surgery since the Kentucky Derby, but when we were in Louisville last spring I had really bad eyesight. There were four of us standing against the outside fence near the entrance to the winner’s circle, and we had access to a TV screen, but I could barely see it. During the race I kept asking Dave Rock, another assistant for Graham, ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ and he was giving me play-by-play.
When they turned for home, I could see Animal accelerate under John Velazquez like he was shot out of a cannon. It was unreal. As they sped past us, we were screaming and I started running down the track with Dave; our stable manager, John Panagot; and the groom, Porfirio Fernandez. It was just crazy. I imagine that’s as close as you can get to having an out-of-body experience.
The whole Kentucky Derby experience was incredible. Graham had scratched our other Derby horse, Toby’s Corner, on Monday because of an injury, and that was a huge letdown. He had won the Wood Memorial over Uncle Mo and been tested on dirt, so everyone was a little disappointed. But we realized we had another horse to run and kept our focus on pointing Animal to Saturday.
I had been to Churchill Downs before, and I remember then thinking how much grander it looked on television. Well, I can tell you it far exceeded my expectations Derby Day. Walking over before the race and seeing the Twin Spires and the crowds gave me a feeling that is hard to describe.
When I was standing on the track during the post parade, it was incredibly loud, but Animal didn’t have a care in the world. A lot of the horses were washing out or skittish when they came out of the tunnel, but he was cool as a cucumber. Nobody in our group was saying anything. I just closed my eyes and tried to picture the race unfold, but when it was actually happening I couldn’t believe it.
I don’t think even winning another Derby could top that feeling. I had brought Animal to Kentucky for the Spiral Stakes at Turfway – which he won – and galloped him up to that race. Then, after Graham and Mr. (Barry) Irwin, the owner, decided to point him for the Derby, I galloped him at Keeneland. All told, I was probably on Animal for a month and a half, so I guess you could say I was a part of racing history and it was very special.
Before I got my biology degree from RPI in 2008, I was originally a pre-med major, and I was kind of torn between going to medical school or veterinary school. Throughout my whole time in college, and during summers and vacations, I kept galloping. When graduation time came I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I would always have horses. Then, while I was freelancing for Darley, Graham called me and asked if I wanted to take a string of horses for him to Belmont.
I didn’t have to think too hard before I said ‘Yes.’ My parents think it is wonderful and have been very supportive. My dad Kevin is a mechanical engineering professor at Marquette, but he told me as long as I was happy doing this, he and my mom were all for it. My sister Shannon, who is 21 and attends Loyola Marymount in California, is not into horses at all; the complete opposite of me.
My mom has been a major inspiration throughout my life. She was diagnosed with cancer when I was 12, but she was able to beat it with the support of all of us, as well as her close friends and our retired Thoroughbred gelding, a horse named Did.
Did wasn’t a great race horse, but it’s pretty amazing when you think about the effect horses can have on people. After my dad got hired at Marquette a few years ago, my mom brought Did to Wisconsin and she continued to ride.
For some reason, my mom started saving the recyclable plastic feed bags from Nutrena, Purina and Prince, and a couple of years ago she got the idea to cut them down and sew them into shopping tote bags, with approval from the companies.
That idea was not totally original, but my mom has carried it a step further. She sells her totes (which she calls ‘T-Oats,’ to emphasize the connection with horses) to benefit a large number of equine charities, horse safe havens, adoption programs, therapeutic riding programs for children and the like. She has a couple of trainers who send her the empty feed bags, and she makes the items herself.
I have a wine carrier and a Christmas stocking made from the bags, and I gave a couple to the folks in the racing office here at Tampa Bay Downs. I guess I am biased, but I think they are very attractive and practical. Anyone who desires more information about my mom’s work and ‘T-Oats for Equine Charity, Inc. … helping heal humans & horses,’ can go to http://www.t-oats.org/ on the Internet.
My best friend (Tampa Bay Downs trainer) Leigh Delacour, who is a former jockey and also used to work for Graham, has also provided a huge influence – not just in my career, but in my life choices. She and her husband Arnaud Delacour are friends I turn to when I have questions about horses and about life.
Bill Mott was one of the best horsemen you could hope to be around and come up under. Working for him was a big part of getting me to where I’m at today. Will Phipps, who trains here at Tampa Bay Downs, was an assistant to Bill then, and he also helped me. I was able to ride some really nice horses such as My Typhoon, Majestic Warrior and Silver Whistle.
Now that I’ve experienced the way Bill and Graham train, I don’t think I would ever work for anyone else. They are very patient, and it is always about the horse and how you can benefit the animal. Hopefully you will have a successful outcome – whether it is just getting to the races, or eventually winning – but the welfare of the horse always comes first.
Graham lives with his family in Fair Hill, Md., and although we communicate on the phone every day, I am on my own about 90 percent of the time. We ship horses in and out all the time from Palm Meadows on the east coast of Florida to Tampa Bay Downs, depending on who is entered. Because of the size of his operation, Graham’s assistants make daily decisions that affect the way his horses train and race.
We have a 3-year-old filly who broke her maiden for Pin Oak Stud in her first start here named Let’s Get Married. She has been here since the meeting started, and I ride her every single day. She’s a lovely filly to be around, but she’s a little crazy! Graham trained her mother, Vow That Binds, and he says she was a little loopy, too. Horses definitely have minds of their own and they are all different.
Well, it has been an experience to deal with Let’s Get Married every day, but it has been rewarding and a lot of fun. When she came here from Fair Hill, she was well-behaved but still fairly green. Even when she won, she kind of wavered and bumped into the rail through the stretch, but it was exciting and Graham was very pleased.
Now he calls her ‘my filly,’ because I’d been talking about how much I like her and how well she was doing.
Make no mistake: It’s a team effort when you win a race. I have two grooms and two hot walkers, and a lot goes into getting each horse ready. There are so many things that can go wrong leading up to a race, right before the race, and during the race. Everything has to come together at the right time, including the jockey.
Most of us in this business, I think, do it for the love of the horse. Working with horses is something you have a real passion for, or you don’t. I don’t feel you can be on the fence about it, because of what we do and the hours you put in. Every day it is myself and the grooms and the hot walkers and the vets, and it all comes back to the love of the animal.
I love taking them to the races and seeing them win, but at the end of the day for me it is about being around them and making sure they are doing well – and if they’re not doing well, figuring out ways to improve their quality of life or the way they are training.
Starting my own stable would be the next logical step. Everybody always asks me that, because I’ve been an assistant for a while. I’ve been all over the place – Canada, California, Kentucky, New York, Oklahoma – with the best horses we’ve had, which I’ve been so lucky to do.But I don’t know if training on my own is what I’m really drawn to, because there are so many other things you have to deal with. Running your own stable is not always just about the horses, which is the real reason I am in this business