People who know Jack Fisher best will say everything one should say about a top trainer: he is consistent, he never takes short cuts. But he’s also, well, a little different.
“Jack is crazy, and all of his horses are crazy like him,” said William Dowling, one of Fisher’s regular riders, with a laugh. “If you go to the races, you can pick out the Jack Fisher horses straight away. They’re crazy in the paddock, ready to go, and they always look good.”
A champion rider (best known for his unmatched success over timber with Saluter) as well as trainer, Fisher still spends plenty of time in the tack. He typically doesn’t wear a helmet when mounted, but when he does put one on, you’d better watch out, said Dowling.
“When you see him put on his hat, you know it’s a serious ride. We’re going cross-country, and we’re in trouble,” said Dowling. “You’ll be jumping stuff you wonder if they’re going to jump. You could do anything, but you know it’s going to be fast and you’re going to be jumping fast.”
He has a T-shirt, said Dowling, that states his motto: “If you’re in control, you’re going too slow.”
But quirks aside, Fisher’s methods have produced undeniable results. He won the National Steeplechase Association’s trainer of the year title for the fourth time in 2008, with the top overall and timber horses in his stable, and earned his second Eclipse Award, as well as becoming the first chasing trainer to surpass the $1 million mark in a single year.
“The million-dollar mark is a major accomplishment,” said Sean Clancy, a former champion jockey who rode for Fisher, now a writer and editor/publisher of The Steeplechase Times. “He deserves it; no one works harder than Jack. He does a lot himself. He sets the example. He’s so hands-on. There’s not a horse in his barn he hasn’t ridden.”
“He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty,” added Dowling. “He makes the staff work hard, but he does too. Jack is always the first one to be there to help you.”
Fisher stands second only to the legendary Jonathan Sheppard, more than two decades his senior, in terms of all-time leading trainers, with $7,979,121 to Sheppard’s $18,064,471.
“He’s obviously the best young trainer around, behind Jonathan Sheppard,” said Clancy. “He is an honest, loyal trainer. He tries very hard to take care of his owners, and they step up and continue to buy nice horses for him. I think Henry Stern has been with him from the start, and it’s a credit to Jack when owners stay that long. He’s a likeable guy, and that goes a long way. He makes it fun.”
He’s also willing to try new things, said Clancy, like a treadmill or the new Polytrack surface he installed on his track. That state-of-the-art track helped him prepare his horses for the fall meets on exactly the schedule he wanted, without worrying about the weather or footing interfering with a work.
“He will stand the test of time,” added Clancy. “He’s very demanding of himself, but I don’t see him burning out. He’s never standing still—he jumps in the horse van or is on the tractor mowing or grooming the track. I wonder if he can keep that pace up, but it sure works for him.”
Family: Wife Sheila
2008 Highlights: 26 wins; 13 stakes wins; trainer of the overall (Good Night Shirt) and timber (Bubble Economy) horses of the year; new earnings record of $1,156,907.
Personality: “He’s just loyal,” said Sean Clancy. “He’s going to give you grief about most things you do, but when push comes to shove, he’s going to be on your side. You could say, ‘I need a million dollars and a getaway car,’ and he’d pick you up at the end of the driveway. He would give you hell, but he’d do it.”
A fourth-generation horseman, Fisher’s love of his vocation surely contributes to his success. “We’re having fun, not every day but most,” said Fisher. “I could not work in an office.
“I worked at the track, and chasing is more fun,” he added. “Not everyone is in it for the money. People are nice; it’s a sport. People help each other out. You work together in ways that you don’t see at the track.”
Fisher works especially well with his stiffest competitor and mentor, trainer Tom Voss, who finished just one race behind Fisher in this year’s rankings. The two frequently help each other at races, including tacking for one another when one of them has to be at a different meet.
Two-time Eclipse winner Good Night Shirt is certainly one of Fisher’s most famous charges, and although Fisher claimed he is an easy horse to prepare, he seemed to be managed perfectly in his flawless season last year, which included a summer off.
“I don’t know 10 years ago if he would have given Good Night Shirt the time off, but the owners respect his decisions,” said Dowling. “And he was right. Even Jonathan Sheppard said it was a brave move and the right move, and coming from a Hall of Fame trainer…it takes a pretty brave trainer to get him back in peak condition in time to run at Belmont [(N.Y.) in September] against horses who’d been running all summer.”
In addition to Good Night Shirt’s five grade I wins, Fisher had several other stakes stars, winning the first four stakes of the fall—at Kentucky Downs, Monmouth Park (N.J.), Virginia Fall Races and Belmont—with four different horses. A few weeks later, he won three of the five stakes races at Far Hills (N.J.).
“Some of those stakes, I just took a shot,” Fisher said. “At Kentucky Downs, [my horse] was 20 to 1, and he deserved to be, but he stepped up.”
Somehow, Fisher’s charges seem apt to step up into more than anyone expected—even their owners and Fisher himself.
“With Jack, you don’t look forward to any greatness, because he doesn’t let you get your hopes up,” said Good Night Shirt’s owner Harold A. Via Jr., the NSA’s leading owner of 2008.
But that greatness emerges, whether it’s over timber or in a grade I hurdle stakes.
“Of all the young trainers, he’s by far the best,” said Clancy. “If he keeps going the way he’s going, in 20 years there will be another name etched in steeplechase lore, and it will be Jack Fisher. I think we’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, that guy had some career.’ ”