Sunday, January 19, 2014

Jim McMullen, Trainer

At 27, Jim McMullen left his job as an assistant trainer under his uncle, the late Philip “P.G.” Johnson, to become a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in New York City. Count the next three years as an exercise in wilderness-wandering for McMullen, who came to realize his calling was with Thoroughbreds. “The racetrack was all I had ever done, so I thought I needed to see what else was out there before it was too late,” the Chicago native recalls of his venture into assets management. “But once I got into it, I realized it was more of a high-pressure sales job than really helping people build a portfolio.” Given another chance at fulfillment, the University of Kentucky product set an unofficial track record getting from Manhattan back to Chicago, where he opened a public stable in 1993 and has been training since. Among his top horses are the 10-year-old multiple-stakes winner Yankee Injunuity, who has raced twice at the current meeting; $2.5-million career earner Cloudy’s Knight, who rewarded McMullen with a victory in the Grade III Fair Grounds Breeders’ Cup Handicap in 2007; Bonnie Rob, a gelding he trained to win the 1996 Grade III Swoon’s Son Handicap at Arlington Park; and Daisies and Nites, who won three consecutive stakes in a 10-week span in 1999. Now in his fifth season in Oldsmar, the 51-year-old McMullen and his significant other, Ginger Haas, have a 3-year-old daughter, Teagan. Ginger owns Yankee Injunuity. His younger brother, Mike McMullen, is a starter at the New York Racing Association tracks. McMullen took time recently to offer his thoughts on his enduring love affair with horses in the latest installment of Tampa Bay Downs’ blog, “Racing In The Sunshine.”

MOST PEOPLE REMEMBER MY UNCLE, P.G. JOHNSON, as the man who owned and trained Volponi to a shocking 43-1 upset in the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Arlington Park. To me, he was the guy who introduced me to the magical world of Thoroughbreds. As a boy, I spent every summer from the time I was 12 at his barn at Belmont Park and Saratoga. I got there early every morning and worked hard because I wanted to learn everything and absorb as much as I could. I wasn’t as attracted to racing as I was to the horses – their spirit, competitiveness and athleticism.

I WASN’T ABLE TO BE AT ARLINGTON WHEN VOLPONI WON, but it’s still one of my greatest memories. I was living in Delaware and my horses were stabled at Laurel, and I couldn’t get away. Such is the life of a trainer.

I ALMOST GOT TO THE BREEDERS’ CUP MYSELF in 2009 at Santa Anita with Yankee Injunuity. He had won the Arlington Sprint Handicap at five-and-a-half furlongs on the turf, which was an automatic “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. In fact, he beat Chamberlain Bridge, who won the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs in 2010. I owned Yankee Injunuity then with my college roommate Dwight Back, who is now the President of TROT (Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc.) and a friend of his from grade school, Gary Rose. We were thrilled about the opportunity, but the horse just wasn’t 100 percent when it came time to decide whether to go. If I had thought we had a chance of hitting the board, we would have taken a shot. Regrets? None at all.

I’M STILL IN AWE WHEN I THINK ABOUT P.G. training for more than 50 years – longer than I’ve been alive – and winning more than 2,300 races. My uncle had a genuine love and respect for his horses, and I think that rubbed off on me. I was always an animal person, and I had gone to college to become a veterinarian, but the idea of going to school another five years or doing what I loved pulled me back to the barn. I went back to work for him for six years before I tried Shearson Lehman, then I went to work for Elliott Walden for three years before going out on my own.

LEARNING UNDER THOSE TWO GUYS MAKES ME BELIEVE in divine intervention. My uncle was up every morning at 3:30 a.m., and he was back at the barn every afternoon. He taught me all my horsemanship skills. I don’t remember him doing anything else. He bred horses too, including Volponi, with his wife Mary Kay and their daughters under their Amherst Stable banner. Working with Elliott Walden – who trained so many stakes winners, including 1998 Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop – helped me fine-tune everything for going out on my own. He helped sharpen my skills on communicating directly with owners and entering horses. He also gave me my first stakes winner, Moment’s Best.

I CONSIDER MYSELF A BETTER HORSEMAN than I do a trainer. When you run a public stable and are trying to attract owners, you have to be a bit of a politician and a salesman. Adapting to the pressure of having to win a high percentage of races is very challenging. People tend to look only at your record, and if you’re not winning 20 percent of the time, you must not be any good. There is a lot more to it than that. My focus has changed over the years to where I’m more aware of doing the right thing by my horses.

A LOT OF TIMES YOU HEAR ABOUT A HORSE THAT’S LAZY and doesn’t try, but the ones who cheat usually do so for a reason. So it’s your job as a trainer to get them right. What I’ve found over the years is when they are in a spot where they belong and they’re healthy and feeling good, they give you their all.

RIGHT NOW, I’VE GOT A GROUP OF OWNERS WHO SHARE MY THINKING, like Vanessa Nye, who lives in Tampa, and Lou Stevens and Steve Breen, who are from Chicago. Personally, I think we are at a point where we can do without all forms of medication, including Lasix. The 2-year-old I have will start without Lasix, and we’ll go from there. Stricter medication rules won’t completely level the playing field because there are always people who are going to look for an unfair advantage. But with all the negative media attention surrounding the issue, I think that is the best way to go.

IT LOOKS LIKE ILLINOIS RACING IS GOING TO HAVE THE SAME DATES in 2014, but much beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess. The horsemen are fighting for slot machines on-track, but in the meantime we’re struggling. I believe there are 10 casinos in Illinois, and they have racinos at ThistleDown in Ohio and Indiana Downs. In this day and age of instant gratification, that is tough to wrestle with. We’re planning to go back to Illinois this year, but going forward we might have to make some adjustments. The slots are here to stay and we need them to stay competitive.

I DO BELIEVE THE RACING GODS SMILED ON ME with Yankee Injunuity. I bought him as a yearling as part of a three-horse package for $50,000 with Dwight and Gary, and he is closing in on $500,000 in career earnings. He is still a full horse so we might breed him to something, but his pedigree is relatively undistinguished so we may just keep him as a barn pet or retrain him for another career. Ginger also owns another horse that was part of the deal, Mr. Seabra, who won twice at Tampa Bay Downs and is in the stall right next to Yankee Injunuity.

THE BEST HORSES NEED TO RACE LONGER to keep more people interested in our sport. At this stage, that is hard to accomplish because the stud values are so high for horses that win graded stakes at 2 and 3, and the cycle keeps perpetuating itself. But I do think if industry leaders make a concerted effort to phase out medication, horses will last longer. It doesn’t do the sport much good to have the best 3-year-olds nowhere in sight when they turn 4 years old.

AS FAR AS HOBBIES, ANYTHING COMPETITIVE DRAWS ME IN, but my main hobby is my daughter. Teagan is in pre-preschool, but she comes out here almost every day for the afternoon feedings and chases the cat around. She already knows every horse’s name. But I don’t know if I want her following me into the business. It is more of a lifestyle than a job, sure, but to be successful you need to be here seven days a week and keep your eye on everything. I think there are easier ways to go.

MY PARENTS, JAMES AND JOSEPHINE, STILL LIVE IN CHICAGO. My older sister Bridget lives in Sugar Grove, Ill., my younger sister Mollie is in Chicago and our brother Mike is with NYRA. My dad was born on the South Side so he’s always been a White Sox fan, but I always go for the Cubs. Ted Lilly, the former Cubs pitcher, is good friends with Ginger’s cousin, and he used to get us seats in the Cubs family section. Wrigley Field is kind of a step back in time; everybody is there to enjoy baseball and sunshine. It’s kind of old style, not to mention the Old Style you drink. Now about that Cubs curse. …

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