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February 5, 2010

The Chronicle's Steeplechase Horseman Of The Year: Janet Elliot

Janet Elliot became the first female trainer to be inducted into Thoroughbred Racing's Hall of Fame in 2009. Photo by Tod Marks.

It was no surprise to the American steeplechase world that trainer Janet Elliot was inducted into Thoroughbred Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2009, becoming only the second woman ever to be chosen and the only female trainer to date.

Perhaps the only question is: Why did it take so long to notice her?

One of the top jump trainers of all time, Elliot has broken many records, shattered a few glass ceilings and trained some of the finest steeplechasers the sport has ever seen. Horses like Campanile, Census, Correggio, Flat Top, Green Highlander, Master McGrath and Victorian Hill have all been under her tutelage. 

Her $7.7 million in purses rank her third in all-time career earnings, and, until recently, she was second to trainer and former mentor Jonathan Sheppard for more than a decade. She even spoiled Sheppard’s 18-year winning streak by taking the top trainer honors for 1991 and was the first female steeplechase trainer to win the award.

In the late 1990s, she was considered one of the most influential women in the sport. Trainers and jockeys alike understood, if Elliot had a horse in the race, she meant business.

“You knew you were on a live one,” said her former champion jockey Sean Clancy. “I knew that Janet’s horses would always have a little bit more left in the tank than everyone else’s. They were tweaked to perfection.”

Clancy started to ride for her in 1988 as an exercise jockey at the farm. He didn’t automatically earn a spot in the tack at the races, however, because Elliot’s riders had to earn their way. “I would call her every Monday night when the overnights came out,” Clancy said. “Basically just to hear her say ‘no.’ It was kind of a game with us.”

Clancy recalled once telling Elliot he could tack on at 138 (pounds) for a ride, knowing full well it was going to be more like 140-plus at the time. She doubted he could drop the weight but finally relented, and the game was on.

“We won the race, and as soon as we were done with the win pictures, I leapt off the horse, grabbed my tack and sprinted for the scales. No sooner had I gotten off, there was Janet right behind me. There’s a photo of us from that moment. We look like we were celebrating the win, but actually I was laughing because she hadn’t been quick enough to see the numbers. She was like that, even though we’d won, she had to know what my weight was right then and there,” said Clancy.

A taskmaster, a workaholic, demanding and a perfectionist, Elliot likes to be the first in the barn and the last to leave.

Clancy recalled one of the most impressive things about working with Elliot was her unrelenting resolve to get horses to a new level and tap into potential that no one else knew was there.

“It was uncanny her ability to look at a horse and know exactly what was wrong with it and how to fix the problem,” Clancy said. “To this day, I’ve never seen anyone do this so well. To be able to get horses back from serious injuries and in a really kind and patient way, was amazing.”

Champion Victorian Hill suffered several bouts of colic. The most severe landed him on the operating table in 1991, but even with half of his colon gone, he came back to win the 1992 Iroquois Stakes (Tenn.).

“I enjoyed working with horses, and I just did what I loved,” Elliot said. “The rest fell into place. This is how my life has kind of always been. I didn’t have any set goals.”

Elliot didn’t go out looking for champions. Instead she made them out of horses that probably wouldn’t have been on anyone’s list of candidates. Most were allowance, non-winners of two, claimers, head-cases and the occasional bright star who was troubled with consistency issues.

“I’ve been lucky. I really never go horse shopping,” Elliot said. “People send me horses, and that’s how it’s always worked.”

But as the sport entered the early 21st century, Elliot found herself at another crossroads. Her once deep stable was dwindling. Some of her jockeys had retired or moved on, good help was fleeting, stakes wins weren’t coming as easily, and she hit a long dry spell.

She was only sending out the occasional horse to run on the flat, a youngster over hurdles or bringing back a horse from a long lay-up. The wins still came, just not at the stakes level.

But the spring of 2009 not only brought her the Hall of Fame news, but two of her horses, Dalucci and Red Letter Day, started putting her on the boards. And along with help from fellow countryman jockey Bernard Dalton, the Elliot name was again synonymous with winning.

Cherry Knoll Farm’s gray Dalucci started the stakes race streak, winning the $30,000 Queens Cup (N.C.).

Enter Red Letter Day, a 20-1 shot, mediocre allowance horse who won the coveted $150,000 Lonesome Glory at Belmont Park (N.Y.) in September and gave Elliot her first Grade I win in many years.

Owned by Gregory Hawkins, Red Letter Day suddenly was a serious contender in the National Steeplechase Association Horse of the Year and Eclipse Award race and gave the run of his career in the $100,000 Colonial Cup (S.C.), placing second to Mixed Up by a short neck.

Did Elliot win the trainer of the year for 2009? No, that title went to Jack Fisher, last year’s Chronicle Steeplechase Horseman of the Year, with his 23 wins.

What Elliot did do was prove that she might have been gone for a spell, but she’s hardly out of the game.

PERSONAL PROFILE

Country of Origin: Ireland

Home: Kirkwood, Pa.

Age: 61

First Win As A Trainer: 1979 with Too Few Stripes at High Hope Meet (Ky.).

Career Highlights: More than $7.7 million in career earnings; three Eclipse Awards (Flat Top in 2002/1998 and Correggio in 1996); NSA leading trainer in 1991 and 1998.

Major Hurdle Stakes Wins: Inaugural Breeders’ Cup Steeplechase (Md.)—Census (1986); Carolina Cup (S.C.)—Mr. Yankee (1995) and Master McGrath (1998); Colonial Cup (S.C.)—Flat Top (2002, 1998), Correggio (1996), Declare Your Wish (1993), Victorian Hill (1990); Grand National (Md.)—Flat Top (2002, 1998), Correggio (1996), Declare Your Wish and Double Barrel in a dead heat (1991); Temple Gwathmey (Va.)—Census (1986, 1984), Timely Encounter (1990), Woodlast (1992), Nordic Surprise (1993), Mario (1997); Iroquois (Tenn.)—Correggio (1997), Victorian Hill (1992, 1991), Census (1984, 1983); New York Turf Writers—Campanile (1999), Hokan (1998); A.P. Smithwick (N.Y.)—Census (1986), Master McGrath (1992), Campanile (2000,  1999).

Major Timber Stakes Wins: International Gold Cup (Va.)—Final Final (1997); Pennsylvania Hunt Cup—Final Final (1997).

2009 Highlights: Seven wins (26 starts); three stakes wins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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