(Originally published in the April 2, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
The bay colt galloped blithely around the track at Palm Beach Downs, at peace with the soft March morning and the motionless rider on his back. The rider, on the other hand, bore a look of intense concentration as if listening for something just beyond her hearing.
Years as an exercise rider have given Michelle Nihei an added tool as a trainer, one she puts to use riding from three to nine horses a day, including multiple graded stakes winner Prince Will I Am. On this particular morning Nihei was tuned in to Sasueno, a 3-year-old colt who had puzzled her earlier in the season, acting “like a complete chicken” and sporting a lackluster coat though perfectly sound.
“I felt like there was something I was missing,” she said.
Now, having made small changes in equipment and training regimen, Nihei seems to have Sasueno headed in the right direction. “They’re all their own puzzle,” she said. “Some take a little more patience to sort out.”
Nihei, 40, brings a combination of intuition and analytical skill to training, the latter a product of her academic background. “Some of my education supplants my lack of a racetrack pedigree,” she acknowledges.
A native of Calgary, Canada, Nihei grew up riding everything from trick horses to broncos while excelling in academics. After obtaining her master’s degree from the University of Saskatchewan, Nihei came to the University of Kentucky for her Ph.D. in neuroscience.
That’s when she fell in love with Thoroughbred racing.
“I wanted to be on the track and I wanted to be on a horse. I was infected,” she recalled. “The virus got me.”
Busy with academics, Nihei had to settle for showing yearlings at the Keeneland sales. Having received her doctorate, she moved to Baltimore where she spent 41?2 years on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University.
She couldn’t shake the pull of racing, though, so in 2001 she returned to Kentucky. Determined to ride, Nihei made the rounds of barns on Rice Road. Trainer Alice Cohn gave her a chance; so did George Arnold Sr. Before long Nihei, known for her competence and quiet hands, had regular work as an exercise rider.
In 2003 she joined trainer Todd Pletcher as an assistant and soon was handling strings in Kentucky, Florida, and Delaware. During this time she rode and helped train champions Ashado and English Channel in addition to many other stakes winners.
“My analogy of being with Todd is going to graduate school,” Nihei said, noting she learned important lessons about organization and consistency.
She went out on her own in 2007, but not in a way she had planned. In March of that year, as she headed back to Pletcher’s barn at Palm Beach Downs, the filly she was riding flipped over on her. The accident broke her tibia and tore all the supporting structures in a knee.
As paramedics loaded her into the ambulance, one of them told her, “You’ll be lucky if you ever walk again. You will never ride again.”
Nihei replied: “Watch me. Even if you cut this thing off, I will ride again.”
Two surgeries, an infection, and many months of rehabilitation followed, and Nihei did indeed ride again. By that November she also had set up shop as a trainer at Tampa Bay Downs with horses provided by Elisabeth Alexander of Ohio.
Even with her now-impressive racing résumé, not to mention riding skills, Nihei has worked mightily for modest success. “It’s hard because it’s hard, and it doesn’t help to be a girl,” she said. “Just surviving from one day to the next, getting jockeys to ride for you; getting stalls; getting a horse to come around for you.”
Nevertheless, Nihei is thrilled to have a “big” horse in Prince Will I Am. The 4-year-old Victory Gallop colt most recently finished a close third in the Pan American Handicap (gr. IIIT) after taking the Mac Diarmida Stakes (gr. IIT) earlier in the Gulfstream Park meet. He won the grade I Jamaica Handicap in October, then finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Marathon (gr. III) but was disqualified and placed 10th. Despite the outcome Nihei said, “Getting Prince to the Breeders’ Cup was a huge feat for me and my team and for (owner) Susie (Atkins).”
Nihei, who also maintains stalls at Churchill Downs and Saratoga, looks forward to Prince’s future exploits as well as to the development of the nine 2-year-olds in her care.
“The bar for me in this endeavor was set very high. Winning the Kentucky Derby (Presented by Yum! Brands, gr. I) is a pie-in-the-sky kind of dream,” she said, “but so was exercising a racehorse.”