Horse trainer spurred on by challenge

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By Lisa King

Editor's note: Read more stories about Shelby County's horse industry in today's special section insert.

Michael Tomlinson has a way with horses.

The Shelbyville resident has been training horses ever since he was a small boy, training horses for shows.

But it wasn't until he struck out at a baseball career in college that he turned to horses as a way to earn a living.

"After I hurt my arm pitching, I transferred my competitiveness over to rodeos," he said with a grin.

Tomlinson spent seven years as a calf roper and steer wrestler, using experience gained from growing up on his family's ranch in Oklahoma.

Now, as a thoroughbred horse trainer at Churchill Downs, he is seasoned and knowledgeable about all aspects of his trade.

Before coming to Kentucky, he trained at various tracks across the country, including Louisiana Downs, Aksarben Race Track in Nebraska, and at Remington Park in Oklahoma City.

He came to Kentucky in 1993 as a trainer at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky. and moved to Shelbyville in 1996.

"I wanted a more central location for the tracks, so I looked around and decided that Shelby County is where I wanted to live," he said. "Shelby County is pretty much the hub on the wheel. I'm 30 minutes from Churchill and I'm 45 minutes from Keeneland.

He likens the job of horse trainer to personal athletic trainer.

"I'm like a coach," he said. "By the time they come to me, they have already had their basic training. I set up their conditioning programs, and evaluate their talent, and it's my job to place them at the level of competition where they can compete successfully."

He recalled his only Kentucky Derby hopeful, Sir Cherokee.

"Just a week before the Derby, he had an injury," he said. "That was in 2003. He had won the Arkansas Derby before that."

In reflecting on Sir Cherokee, Tomlinson said that training a horse of his caliber makes the job worthwhile.

"It's a tough business, but the most gratifying thing is to to see a horse, like Sir Cherokee who came to me as a very young two-year-old, develop and learn and grow under your tutelage, and the end result is very rewarding."

On the other hand, the most difficult part of the job has nothing to do with horses.

"The hardest thing is managing the owners," he said with a chuckle. Being a thoroughbred horse trainer is a lot like being a little league coach; every parent thinks their kid is Babe Ruth, and all race horse owners think their horse can win the Derby."

Tomlinson's wife, Vicki, said the thing she likes least about her husband's occupation is the unpredictability of the racing industry.

"It's an emotional roller coaster, because you're depending on an animal and they can't tell you when they're feeling bad," she said. "And that can be scary when you're raising three kids."

Tomlinson echoed his wife's sentiments about the unpredictability of the horse.

"One time I had a horse named Mojumbo, and he had worked horribly the morning before his first race," he remembered. "He had absolutely no talent. I was embarrassed to run him. Well, he was loaded into the gate, and he breaks on top and wins by 12. You could have drove a truck in my mouth; my jaw was on the ground," he laughed.

Tomlinson said that unpredictability can extend to the racing form.

"The odds are calculated based on the horses' performances," he said. "But sometimes there's extenuating circumstances that the handicappers don't know about."

But despite these drawbacks, Vicki, who works in horseman relations at Churchill Downs, says she and Mike have never known a time when they haven't been around horses.

"That's how we met; we were both in the rodeo back in Oklahoma; he was roping calves and I was running barrels," she said. "We hit it off right away."

She added that although she and her husband, who will be celebrating their 27th wedding anniversary on April 25, share a love of horses, their three sons, Cole, Kale and Cache, do not share a desire to follow in their foot steps.

"And that's just fine with mom and dad," she said, laughing.