Mar 17 2014

Meet Michelle Nihei – A Smart and Caring Horse Trainer

Michelle Nihei GP

Michelle Nihei

I recently had the chance to sit down and talk with head trainer Michelle Nihei (pronounced Nee-Hay).  In our conversation we covered a lot of ground; including her academic background prior to horse racing, the lessons she learned from working with Todd Pletcher for six years, the challenges facing a small barn, and several hot topics in the industry today. It was a lively discussion that I must admit headed in directions that I did not foresee.  But, at the conclusion, I learned that Michelle is someone that truly cares about her horses, the people in her stable, and the future of the horse racing industry.

Where are you from originally?

I was born in Calgary, Alberta.  I went from the University of Saskatchewan, where I got my undergraduate and Master’s degree, to the University of Kentucky for my PhD (in Neuroscience).

So was it pure chance you ended up in the middle of horse country at UK?

Oh no.  I grew up in a climate of western horses mostly.  But, we knew all about race horses and the industry.  Being a typical horse crazy girl, I read books about Ruffian, Secretariat, Northern Dancer, Man O’ War, etc.  We had a few little tracks, but nothing like the industry that exists in this part of the world.  When I was studying in Saskatchewan, I didn’t have as much connection to racing as I hoped I would have.  I put in an application to the University of Kentucky … because it was horse country.  It was intentional, though not really serious at the time.  But it was impossible to turn down the prospect of being interviewed.  I gave my interview and they gave me the big tour of the Bluegrass area.  The people I met were interesting, pro-academic people.  So, I thought, this isn’t such a bad alternative and the wheels started to move.  And, if you’re really all about horses, Lexington is a nice place to be.

So, you have a PhD in neuroscience … is that beneficial in some way to being a horse trainer?

It gives you the confidence that you can start a project and complete it.  PhDs are fundamentally degrees in problem solving.  You’re not being told to memorize something out of a book.  There are no right answers a lot of the time. Frankly, horse racing is a lot like that.  Dealing with race horses is highly intuitive.  It’s hard to say that so-and-so did this, this many times and follow that pattern and be successful.  You can try it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to work.  Or, if it works once, it doesn’t always work a second time with another horse.  You have to be mentally flexible and be prepared to endure the duress of the industry.  And you better be on your toes all of the time.

How do you mentally prepare for the “duress” of this business?

Every individual deals with it differently.  I let things come at me one at a time, and then get past everything one way or another.  But, you are really emotional about a lot of them; whether it’s a horse you really cared about that has a pretty serious injury, one that can’t race anymore, one you lose to a claim, or an owner that leaves you.  All of those things are hard and they happen … it feels like every day.  You get to the point where you know you’re going to take the hit.  So, you just feel grateful for the things that you have and the successes that you’ve had.  I’m lucky because I have such a strong team.  I have a great assistant, a great blacksmith, a super foreman, and great riders.  When I lost a big owner in the Fall; my hotwalker came to me and said, “Michelle you do such a great job, don’t worry, it will be alright.”  I’m thinking – when my team is coming to me and trying to give me a boost – how does it get better than this?

You are a mysterious person to many of my horseplayer brethren.  Is that part of your head trainer persona, or is that just who you are?

I’m always surprised when I hear that, but frankly I’ve heard that all my life.  Regardless of my occupation at the time, people have described me that way.  So, I suspect that’s just who I am.  It’s not intentional, not something that I’ve cultivated.  I will say that I’ve always been very focused – whether I’m writing an essay, taking a test, riding horses, training racehorses, or analyzing what’s going on in the paddock … I’m pretty focused.

What are some of the things you might say to a jockey in the paddock?

Michelle Nihei with Joe Bravo

Michelle Nihei with Joe Bravo

One thing I learned from Todd (Pletcher) is never say too much.  You never want to give them a litany of instructions.  Most of the time I’m riding somebody that’s worked the horse in the morning or knows me well enough to trust me and I’ll just say this is what this horse is like.  And that’s all I tell them.

The race is going to shape up the way it’s going to shape up.  They’ve handicapped the race, I’ve handicapped the race; the likelihood of both of us being right or wrong is the same.  You really don’t know what will happen when that gate opens.  A horse might bolt left, and he never did that before.  You have no idea.

A lot of what I’ve learned about communicating with jocks I’ve taken from Todd.  If you listen, it’s always brief communication.  Between Todd and Johnny (Velasquez) there wasn’t any, because that always happened in the morning.  And he never tells them how to ride a race.

Can you give a specific example of something you might tell a jockey about the nature of your horse?

There was a colt I trained last year named Draw Too, who was a very rideable colt.  He was well trained when I got him, and he stayed that way.  I worked him most of the time myself, and schooled him out of the gate, and I knew he didn’t like to break, and there was nothing you could do to make him break well.  The one time he was hustled out of the gate he got a little bit rank, and we were lucky that day he was so much better than the rest.  So, my instruction to the rider might be, “Don’t expect him to break well. He’s not going to.  Just keep him settled, and the rest of the race will go like driving a car.  He’ll go wherever you want him to go.  Wait until the ¼ pole, show him some daylight, and it will go fine.”

What about the dialogue with a jockey after the race?

Some trainers will tell a jock what they’ve done wrong.   There’s no point in doing that with a journeyman (experienced jockey). The young rider who will listen to you, you might be able to say a couple of things.  But, most of the other guys, they don’t want to hear it.  I’m more interested in what they’re going to tell me. Did he warm up well?  What did you feel when he warmed up?  What did you feel in the gate?  How did he come home?  Was there any hesitation ever?  I will know if I want to ride that rider back on the horse given the feedback I get.  You can tell from what they say, whether they liked the horse or didn’t.

So, you worked for Todd Pletcher from 2001 until 2007. Anything else you want to share about things you learned from him?

He was very flexible in the way he managed different strings.  He recognizes where people have their strengths and their weaknesses.  Some assistants had a lot of direction and some did not.  Todd gave me a lot of latitude and opportunities.  I deal with my personnel very similarly.

Being around great horses was probably the most valuable learning experience that you can have.  And, when you work for somebody having 40 horses – that’s a lot of horses.  When you work for somebody that has 240 horses, you get three years of experience in one.

For a time, you had Prince Will I Am in your stable. Do you treat a “Big Horse” differently?

The fact of the matter is – you do.  You can’t help it.  You pay more attention to him, you watch him more closely at work, you think more … but from day to day, if you wrote it down … what we feed him, how we vaccinate him, how we treat him, how we bandage him, it’s all the same.  Every single horse in my shed gets treated the same way.  Because champions will slip through the cracks if you let them.  It would have been easy for him to end up as something else, if we weren’t paying attention.  He doesn’t have a huge pedigree, he’s short coupled, and he doesn’t look like he’d want to go long on the turf … or on the dirt.  Yet he did – on the dirt, poly, and on the turf.  He’s now my barn pony, and to this day he wants to be out there in every set.  I really love having him in the barn.

What are your thoughts on training and racing on the Polytrack at Keeneland?

Keeneland Starting Gate

Keeneland Starting Gate

Keeneland’s situation is unusual, because their (old) dirt surface was highly susceptible to being adverse during inclement weather.  It was one of the worst race tracks around then.  I prefer to race on Poly at Keeneland, especially on rainy days.  But, I don’t enjoy training on it over a long period of time.  For the very short period that we’re there it’s fine.  But to stay there, it’s difficult from the perspective of someone who’s been successful training on dirt tracks and running on turf.

My understanding is that Poly tracks are common in Europe.  Why does it work so well there?

I was lucky enough to work for Sir Michael Stout back in 2002.  They have wood chip surfaces and artificial surfaces, but they are not that mixture of fiber and rubber (as in our Poly tracks).  So, their artificial surfaces are not the same.  Not even not the same as ours, but not even the same within their own artificial surfaces.  Also, they get a lot more moisture and they don’t get a lot of long term heat.  The temperature doesn’t fluctuate as much and their drainage systems are very different.  There are so many things that are different, but they’re more closely related to one another than ours are.  Like the difference between Arlington, northern Kentucky, and Keeneland … it’s a surface that is never the same anywhere.  Particularly when you change the base on which it is draining.  And, as a rider, they all feel very different.

It (often) gets cold early in the mornings and works can be very different.  When it gets warm like this (around 82 degrees) that track (Keeneland) gets sticky and it’s hot.  It’s physically hot to the touch; you would not want to put your bare hand on that track.  The drastic change from morning to afternoon makes it hard to predict – whether or not their works (over the Poly) mean anything at all.  Or, how a horse that’s never run on the Poly track is going to run?  Or, whether a horse that’s run well over it will run back to that again because the conditions have changed environmentally?

Do you worry about your win percentages?

Everybody has to.  As a small barn, there’s going to be a percentage of horses where you don’t have the liberty of choosing the appropriate race for him.  Maybe you don’t have the horse that needs to go in that spot.  Or, you get shoved by the racing office into a spot you don’t belong, and you’ve got a gun to your head and you have no choice.  Sometimes you have to be quietly proud of a performance, because that horse had no business being in that race.  But at least we were close enough to compete.  The more horses you have the less that materializes.  The fewer horses you have the more significant that lack of opportunity becomes.

I think anybody who has a very small barn, with even reasonably good percentages is doing an unbelievably great job – because you don’t have the options.  The fact that you’re pulling out wins at all against these kind of competitors is astonishing.  The fact that we’ll go out there against half million dollar competitors and win with home-breds or state-breds is a fait accompli.  It can be like David and Goliath at times.  But it’s not just about me … it’s the people that I work for, the people that work for me, the team.  Nobody does this by themselves … nobody.  So, that whole support system you have underneath you is responsible for every one of those successes.

Casa Creek

Casa Creek

You train the horses, but do the horses ever train you?

No question.  They’ve all been mentors; every one of them.  You learn so much, from the best one in the barn … to the one you’ve done the poorest with.  You learn lessons.  The more horses you have, the more experiences you have, the more lessons you learn.

How about the disconnect between front-side and backside that I’ve discussed with others … thoughts?

It’s still about people needing to make a connection to a horse.  We’re now dealing with security gates, guards, and cameras – and ultimately what we’re doing is preventing people from coming into a barn and seeing a horse.  If the only place you’re ever going to see a horse is in the paddock, when they’re getting ready to go out and explode out of the gate, that’s not the right time to go up and pet him on the nose.  So, we as horsemen and the front-side administration need to figure it out.

Instead they’re all about casinos and the betting public. I get it, but it’s not going to drive fans to racing.  Because racing is about horses, and the stories behind the faces of the horses are really cool.  I really think that ultimately the interest is about the fascination that we have from a much, much deeper level about what it is that drives a horse.  Because really … truly great trainers and great jockeys aside … if you’ve got a great horse, that great horse will overcome everything that you do wrong.  Every wrong ride, bad groom, bad exercise rider, mistake a trainer makes … great horses make great trainers.  And that’s the end of the story.

What does the racing industry need to do in order to attract new fans?

By next summer, somebody needs to convince the head of NYRA not to increase the admissions, not to charge for picnic tables.  For 150 years people have been coming to Saratoga, and that’s where we’re getting new New York fans.  What he needs to be doing is opening those gates up to the public and handing everybody a 50-cent trifecta ticket and saying go ahead and try to pick three horses.  But, to act like this is the movies … they don’t care enough about horse racing to pay more money to get there.  It’s a ridiculous concept.  He would be a hero if he took admissions away, kept picnic tables free, and handed out a ticket that went towards your first bet.

I have to say that I like the openness of Gulfstream Park.  The feeling that you can come and go as you please (there is no admission charge) is attractive to many people.

I think that Saratoga has that same potential, because there is so much going on there.  If NYRA starts to turn it into something that it’s not, that place will not work.  Horse racing is not at an experimental stage.  It’s been what it is for a long time, and it’s starting to fall.

The problem is the innovation is coming from casinos.  The integration of huge companies like Harrah’s … that’s where they think they’re evolving.  It’s more like having a huge parasite come in and they’re going to wipe us out.  Eventually, whether it’s been Mountaineer or Delaware, we’ve seen it happen across the board.  They get to a point where they show that they’re profitable and can put a lot of money into the hands of government agencies without us … and all we do is cost money.  Which is true.  If we don’t find a platform in which to survive on our own, we will not make it.  It will contract.  I don’t believe that horse racing will go away in our lifetime, but it will continue to contract.  And it will get to the point where we will only have Todd Pletcher, Kiarin McLaughlin, and David Jacobsen … you know, gigantic stables that all run against each other.

It’s hard to attract young interest into this game.  You can’t even think about how you would find a spot to be a player in the game.  There are plenty of people who like to fantasize about being a rider, trainer, or exercise rider … and it’s hard to do that right now with everybody feeling like they’re not surviving.  One of the things representing the most attractive part about this sport is the ground level on which that American dream is built.  And if it goes away and it’s not there, it’s not so attractive.

What’s the level of commitment required for training and other jobs related to training?

It’s such a big commitment, that you don’t really think about a life outside of racing.  You don’t have enough time for relationships outside of racing.  You don’t have enough time, or energy.  Unless you’re affluent enough that you don’t require the money from training to subsist on.  But, I don’t know many people who are like that.

Our blacksmith and veterinarians, in order to be successful, need to be fully committed.  They’re getting up at 3:30-4:00 in the morning, seven days a week … and they are there until noon or later.  Because you might be worrying about horses that are racing, shoeing before a race, treating horses with lasix, scoping after the races, etc.  Nobody takes a vacation.  It’s an eye-opener for a lot of people that don’t know what goes on back here.

Any goals for 2014?

I’m always reaching high.  The bar is as high as I can set it.  It’s never really legitimate to expect more from a horse other than what they just did, but you always hope the next level is not where the bar stops.  I have a couple of maidens that will win allowance races because they’re good enough to, but obviously we’re looking beyond that.  It’d be great to see Charlie A in the Oaks, it’d be great to see Morning Calm in the Derby … to see them have a great year and get to November in the Breeders’ Cup.

Michelle … it was a pleasure meeting you and I truly hope that your American dream stays alive for a long time to come.  Best of luck to you and your stable of horses.   To learn more about Michelle Nihei, the horse trainer, visit her official website at  To learn more about Michelle Nihei, the person, check out her Blog at

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By Neal Benoit

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7 comments on “Meet Michelle Nihei – A Smart and Caring Horse Trainer

  1. Another great interview Neal! I know Michelle Nihei both personally and professionally and she truly is a genuine and unique person! Wishing her all the success she is due!

  2. Hey Neal,

    Loved this interview with Michelle! I find her very interesting. She is a very intelligent person, and, as you said, a bit mysterious. I think this blog allows racing fans a chance to get to know her.

    Good stuff!

    Maggie Wolfendale on
  3. Thank you for the excellent interview. I enjoyed the story about Michelle Nihei in The Blood Horse last year too. I signed up to follow her blog. She is indeed one of the most fascinating people I have ever read about!

    Jarrod Goldberg on
  4. What a terrific person,. I learned a lot from this interview and I totally agree with her on the way to attract more of the public into racing is to drop the emphasis on betting and increase the emphasis on the horses by giving snipits of info on breeding and what stable bred the horse and what quirks he.she has in training. I’ve been close to racing all my life and find listening to race commentators in the USA is like listening to cement set.

  5. Thank You for this enlightening story I had no idea where she came from or who she learned her craft from. Players are left in the dark tracks do little to inform us of anything to do with the new people involved with horses.

    joseph Beauregard on
  6. Great interview: Is Michelle based solely in KY?
    [Michelle spends the winters in Florida (at Palm Meadows), summers at Saratoga, and I believe she is in Kentucky the balance of the year. N.Benoit]

  7. I remember when Michelle first came on the track and riding with her at the Fairgrounds. She was such a sponge with everything and such a kind person. So great to see her grow and blossom into her dreams of now training on her own!

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