It’s hard enough to win the Platinum Performance USHJA International Derby Championship once, but trainer Tom Wright has done it twice in a row. Despite his achievements, Wright wasn’t always a derby fan.
“I didn’t believe in the program for a long time,” he admitted. “I trained horses that were winners at indoors, and winners at indoors didn’t necessarily win the derby finals—they might be a little difficult or tricky or persnickety. Then Susie Schoellkopf kind of dared me to go for it. I said to [client] John [Ingram], ‘Why don’t we try for it?’ and that’s what we did. I really enjoy it. I think it’s an amazing event.”
That dare paid off when Tori Colvin piloted Cuba to the top of the class in 2017 for John and Stephanie Ingram. Wright repeated his win with Brad Wolf ’s Private Practice the next year, with Colvin up again.
“Winning derby finals twice is as great as anything I’ve ever done,” Wright said. “The venue is so special, and the feeling is so special. It is the hunter world’s Olympics; for us that’s what it feels like. It means the world to me to have won. It’s on par for me [with] winning [the Dover Saddlery/U.S. Hunter Seat Medal Final (Pennsylvania)] and [ASPCA Maclay National Championship (Kentucky)] and winning grand champion at Madison Square Garden [New York].”
Wright should know, because his horses and students have won all those accolades and more, and he was honored by his peers with the Old Springhouse Perpetual Trophy at Capital Challenge (Maryland) two years ago for his lifetime commitment to the sport of show hunters. He’s trained countless top hunter champions out of his Uphill Farm Inc., based in Wellington, Florida, and Nashville, Tennessee, including Ashford Castle, Strapless, Lucky Too, Dreamboat, Arrivederci, Leave Me A Roan, Rio Renoir, Andiamo, Trust Me, Hush, Straight Man, Awesome, Smoking Gun and Out Of Sight, but he describes Private Practice as the best of the bunch.
Wright grew up the son of college professors in Malibu, California, and Santa Barbara, California, riding with Ballard Williams and then Tommy Lowe. He paid for his horse habit first by teaching riding lessons at 11—he put up a flier at the grocery store—then by flatting horses, grooming and braiding. He worked for Joey Darby and then for the Jacobs family with Geoff Teall before moving to Cincinnati to start his own business in 1983 at 21.
“People were so kind to me and opened so many doors that I didn’t know were there,” said Wright, 58. “I think that’s your responsibility as a trainer to do the same thing for other young professionals. That’s the only way that the craft continues the way we want it to continue and to keep that level of excellence.”
Tell me about your first horse or pony.
My first horse cost $100, and his name was Alex. That pony threw me off when I tried him. I said, “Thank God we’re not buying him,” as we were driving home, and my parents said, “We bought him for you.”
He taught me everything, and he lived outside my bedroom window. My favorite horse of my life was Old Dominion. He was very famous but had broken down, and Tommy Lowe’s wife had bought him. He appeared in California and was going to be put to sleep. I begged them to let me take care of him, and I rehabbed him and got him back, and he was my junior hunter and my equitation horse. He meant the most to me of any horse I’ve ever had. [Walter] Jimmy Lee gave me his halter for my 40th birthday; it had been in his barn.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
There are too many people in the horse world who had huge influences on me to pick just one. Growing up I had so many people who took an interest in me like Carleton Brooks, Tommy Lowe, Gene Cunningham and Danny Lenehan, and they were all so important to me. As far as methodology, George Morris is the first person who comes to mind.
In general, John Ingram is a person who influences me all the time, every day. He is such a great man, does things in a really great way. I try to do things the way he would do things. I happen to be lucky enough to work with a man like that. He is an amazing person.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Keep it simple, stupid. That might have come from my great friend Don Stewart, and it’s what I live my life by. I’m a very detail-oriented person. I want to over-do. But your first reaction is usually the best one, and you have to keep it simple to get there.
What’s something people don’t know about you?
I am a film freak. I was really destined to be a film director, not to be a rider. I was supposed to study film at [New York University], but things kept happening for me in the horse business. I was accepted and deferred and never looked back.
Jack Russells, yes or no?
If you could change one thing about the hunter show world, what would you change?
Less showing, more time at home training. We’re having that opportunity as we speak.
If you could ride any horse, living or dead, which would you choose?
The first horse that comes to mind is Idle Dice. He was the greatest jumper, and his record was so amazing. Milton comes to mind too. I was in awe of him. He was like a large pony who did everything perfectly, cantering around Hickstead [Great Britain] like it was a pre-green course.
What’s the last book you read?
Debbie Harry’s autobiography [“Face It”]. It was brilliant. One of my favorite books is Patti Smith’s autobiography about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe [“Just Kids”]. That’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read in my life. Debbie Harry’s isn’t quite as romantic of prose as Patti Smith’s, but it’s amazing.
I grew up in that whole era in New York. I was lucky enough to be there at Mudd Club and CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, and I knew Patti Smith and Debbie Harry—I knew all those people. I grew up in that whole environment and loved it. It’s kind of interesting now that we’re all old that we look back and appreciate it as much as we did.
What quality do you value most in a horse?
Their acceptance of you with no strings being attached. They want to be your friend and want to do things for you. And they accept you for whoever you are.
In a human?
Tell me about your pets.
I have Baxter, whom the Ingrams bred. He’s the greatest Jack Russell that’s ever lived. He goes everywhere with me and is my faithful companion.
What do you like to do when you’re not at the barn?
I love to cook. Cooking is my way to express myself artistically.
If you didn’t work in the horse world, what would you be doing today?
I would hope I’d be in the film industry. Great film and great theater and great acting are passions of mine. I spend a lot of my time going to film or plays.
Describe yourself in three words.
Passionate, optimistic, goal-oriented.
If you could try a different discipline what would you choose?
Reining. Growing up in Santa Barbara the horse shows were set up as multi-breed shows. The majority of them had saddle horses, stock horses and hunters and jumpers. We were friends with all of them, and you learned to ride all the disciplines. Cynthia Wood let me show her saddle horses when I was 10 years old, and they were the greatest horses in America. It’s really kind of wild when I think back on that.
What would you tell your younger self?
Stop holding your breath; eventually you’ll get there.
What’s the hardest thing about being a trainer?
Patience. To do a great job you can never rush a rider; you can’t rush a horse. They evolve at their own speeds.
What’s your drink of choice?
Now that I’m paleo, sparkling water with lemon. But for 57 years—because I came out of the womb holding a martini glass—a Bombay Sapphire martini very dry, up, with an in and out of vermouth.
What three things are always in your refrigerator?
Durkee [sauce], salad dressing, a great butter.
Where do you want to be in 10 years?
Doing what I’m doing and still enjoying it.
This article ran in the August 2020 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse as part of our Hunter Derby Issue.
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