Hours before post time at Saratoga Race Course, trainers, grooms and hotwalkers are already working with the nation’s top thoroughbreds. For trainer Tom Morley, it’s a demanding career. But luckily for him, racing is a family business.
It’s just after six o’clock and the sun is rising over the barns at Saratoga Race Course. Just back from a ride on the Oklahoma training track, while his staff tends to the thoroughbreds, trainer Tom Morley eyes a horse who is acting a bit impatient.
“Easy now…” whistles Tom.
Tom has 18 horses here at Saratoga. Calling Long Island home, his horses are mostly based on the East Coast. He also has 11 horses at Belmont and 18 in Maryland.
The break between rides is short. Tom begins to describe his morning routine, before he jumps up from his patio chair.
“They all have different mental attitudes. And so a lot of our morning is structured around ‘who needs to go out early, who can wait until later because they’re a more relaxed individual, etc.’…Now, I’m off! Bye.”
Tom tries to arrive at the race course every morning around 5 o’clock. And there’s plenty to do. Today, he’s looking forward to the time when his wife, Maggie Wolfendale, their 20-month-old daughter, Grace, and Jack Russell Terrier George arrive at the barn.
They were set to come in at 8, but are a little late. Maggie explains that Grace slept later than normal today. She’s still cranky when they sit down together.
“She’s in a wretched mood,” says Maggie.
“Oh, I’m glad I’m not Elizabeth dealing with her today…”
“Are you kidding me? You are dealing with her today!”
Elizabeth, Grace’s nanny, is pregnant and has a doctor’s appointment. Tom remembers that it’s father-daughter day. Maggie puts her daughter atop one of the horses being led around to calm Grace down. She’s all smiles for now.
Tom has some time to sit down to take care of another side of the business. He has a notepad on the patio table covered with numbers. He balances Grace on his knee. None of his horses will be racing at Saratoga today.
“We’ve got two running in Maryland, so we’ll be on the phone with that team down there, and we’ll be – I’ve got one to go at look to claim here today as well, so it just doesn’t end,” says Tom as Grace clearly wants to get down. “Uh oh!”
The morning family reunion doesn’t last long.
Maggie has to get ready for her 10:30 production meeting. In addition to being a mom and helping out at the barn when she can, she works as the New York Racing Association’s Paddock Analyst, offering news tidbits to viewers at the track and on TV. She’ll be live before the first race at 1 p.m.
Tom calls his wife a “true horsewoman.” They met at Saratoga while Tom was working for trainer Eddie Kenneally. Together, they helped Tom form his own business and were married in 2015.
“Maggie was a little bit stubborn about agreeing to go out for dinner with me and rightly so, probably. But after a couple of months she agreed to go out on a date. And as they say, the rest is history. But it’s very difficult to…I am so incredibly blessed with the wife I have and our amazing daughter and the home life I have because at the end of the day...I don’t have weekends, I can’t just pack up and go to the beach with the family. So you’ve got to have somebody by your side that knows what this life is about,” says Tom.
A few days earlier, one of Tom’s horses, Carrick, took the Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park. He was still being congratulated for the win at the Saratoga backstretch.
Tom, who is 35, says his first Grade I win at Saratoga two years ago was a milestone topped only by his marriage and birth of his daughter.
“Oh, totally. I was bawling my eyes out,” laughs Maggie. “Out of happiness! You know what I mean? It was very emotional. For someone who grew up…my dad just had cheaper horses. We didn’t really venture out in Maryland. We had cheaper claimers. If we had a nice horse it was because my dad claimed it and turned it around and made them better. But we never were at the level of this. I mean, this is the top tier of racing. So for me to be up here and have my husband accomplish that was just kind of fairytale."
Later on, in the Paddock, Maggie goes live. Her commentary is broadcast across the grounds as the horses head out for the first race. She says it takes some homework.
“I have notes if they’ve run before, and I compare that to this time that they’re running, and do pedigrees and stuff like that…”
While Tom’s training business is a family affair, Maggie says her work in the paddock is her time.
“It’s my one thing that I do away from my family that — obviously I like being with my family — it’s my kind of niche. It’s what I do. It’s what I do to provide for Tom and Grace,” says Maggie.
If one of Tom’s horses is in the race, Maggie admits she tries to stay away from it in her analysis.
“I’m happy when if win, but for me, it’s just kind of, I try to ignore him being in the race,” laughs Maggie.
The Saratoga meet, with all of its social obligations, is perhaps the most overwhelming seven weeks of the racing calendar. Maggie learned some simple advice from the late racehorse breeder Penny Chenery.
“Sit down and take it all in. Because sometimes you get caught up with ‘where’s the horse going next? Is the horse OK? Blah blah blah.’ You know, you’ve got to really sit down and enjoy it because you never know when it’s going to happen again,” says Maggie.
“Yeah, it’s been…that sums it up very well,” agrees Tom. “Look, two years ago we had an unbelievable meet here. We won a Grade I. And yet last year was just a year when—“
“—We won one race here! And we went 0 for… in Belmont. It was brutal!” says Maggie.
“We just had a very average bunch of horses and a very average year, and unless you’ve got two, three, four hundred horses, it’s very difficult to paper over those cracks in an operation,” says Tom. “And the American industry in a moment where they’re either going to have to face up to the fact that we’ve got a dozen supertrainers who are training the vast majority of the quality horses…ehm. And so that means that us younger guys who are trying to prove that we can do it, you have to make every single good horse count. And so just that makes days like last Saturday much more special.”
Tom then turns his attention to Grace, who is grabbing at some wipes.
“And having her running around in the barn area. It’s my favorite part of every day knowing that she’s coming in at 8 o’clock or whenever she gets out of bed. You want another one?” Tom asks Grace.
“I wish she was more interested in food than wipes, but OK,” says Maggie.
“Why?” asks Tom. “She is cleaning herself! And the dog.”
“And everything else!”
“Do want some of this?” asks Tom holding a bag of snacks.
“No,” answers Grace.
“OK” say Tom and Maggie together.