Feature Story: Calhoun Has Come a Long Way at Fair Grounds and Beyond

Bret Calhoun remembers first coming to Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in the mid-1990s with a small string of runners.

He didn’t belong.

“I was kind of in awe then because I didn’t have very good stock and it was top racing,” the trainer said Wednesday morning, as he oversaw the routines of 50-some Thoroughbreds he now keeps in Barns 23 and 32 at the Louisiana oval. “I was stabled way in the back with four or five horses; I was just trying to get here so I could get in the game.”

Calhoun, 46, has done exactly that in little more than a decade of stabling at Fair Grounds – not just locally, but on the national scene. On Tuesday he flew back from the Eclipse Awards in Miami Beach, where he accepted honors for 2010 Champion Female Sprinter Dubai Majesty, one of two Breeders’ Cup winners he conditioned last year. The other, turf sprinter Chamberlain Bridge, is pointing toward a start in the Feb. 19 Colonel Power Stakes here en route to a shot at the Al Quoz Sprint in March in Dubai.

At the current meeting, although Calhoun ranks second to perennial leader Steve Asmussen in number of wins, he’s turned in higher win and in-the-money percentages (22% and 57%, respectively) and is the track’s top trainer by earnings with $510,963 thus far. Saturday, he’ll saddle 3-year-old hopeful Action Ready in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes and 4-year-old turf sprinter Greeley’s Rocket in the Dr. A. B. Leggio Memorial, part of Road to the Derby Kickoff Day in New Orleans. 

It’s a good place for a self-made Texas horseman to be.

Modest Beginnings Now Paying Off

Calhoun has racing in his blood (his father, William “Buddy” Calhoun, was a school teacher who also owned and trained at Louisiana Downs), but he didn’t follow the typical method of working as an assistant trainer before going out on his own. Instead, he found his path to the winner’s circle when his parents decided to retire from their “retirement.”

“They owned some horses and when my dad retired they were training a few of their own,” said Calhoun, who grew up in Texas and got his start there. “Then they decided that wasn’t really retired life and I’d always been wanting to do this anyway, so I just took over a few horses that they had. I was pretty much everything – the hotwalker, the groom, the exercise rider, the trainer.”

His first win came on April 1, 1994 in Texas at a little track called Trinity Meadows, but his first training license was actually taken out at Louisiana Downs in 1993. And even as the quality of his stock improved to include talented horses like Mr. Nightlinger, Cactus Ridge, and Euroears, Calhoun maintained his Louisiana connections. In 2004 he tied with Tom Amoss for a runner-up position in the standings at Fair Grounds (Steve Asmussen won the training title with 63 wins, Amoss and Calhoun each had 32), and in 2010 he closed the gap a little more, coming in second to Asmussen 69-41.  

Jockey Jamie Theriot was aboard both of Calhoun’s Breeders Cup winners and has ridden for the trainer for several years at tracks across the country. He said Calhoun’s level-headed approach has been the key to his long-term success, while an improving quality of stock has placed him in a more prominent position in recent years.

“He’s always had the talent of a trainer to be as good as Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert, all of them,” he said. “His stock has gotten a whole lot better as the years have gone on; he’s in the top five right now and I think he’s going to be there for the while. He does really well with young horses, but he also claims horses and they come back to his barn and he goes up the ladder with them. His horses have a chance every time he puts them in, and he’s a great guy to be around on and off the racetrack. I wish a lot of trainers were as calm as he is and as great to ride for. He wants the horse to be able to do the best he can out there, and I think that’s why he’s had all the success he’s having.”

Part of that success in 2010 included victories in the first two legs of Fair Grounds’ three-race stakes series for sophomore fillies – the Tiffany Lass (now the Silverbulletday) and the Silverbulletday (now the Rachel Alexandra) – with Jody Slew, a filly who went on to become his first Kentucky Oaks starter (he has yet to saddle a horse in the Kentucky Derby). Jody Slew was retired to be a broodmare last week, sold privately to John Mulholland of Kentucky’s Mulholland Farm.

“They’ve always had quality horses here, especially in the 3-year-old series that ends with the Louisiana Derby and Fair Grounds Oaks,” Calhoun remarked. “And there’s no telling what you could find in a maiden special weight down here for 3-year-olds; there’s always horses that’ll end up being top horses later in the year coming out of races like those.”

Ready for Action

One such runner is Action Ready, a dark bay son of More Than Ready who has taken a somewhat nontraditional path to the Lecomte. A $30,000 purchase from Fasig-Tipton’s Texas Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale last April for owners Wayne Sanders and Larry Hirsch, the big-bodied colt made his first three starts at Remington Park, breaking his maiden on the second try, before shipping to Fair Grounds to win a Jan. 9 allowance optional claimer going a mile on the turf last time out.

“He showed a lot from his early training and everybody was pretty high on his talent level early on,” said Calhoun. “He ran his first race and it was very disappointing; he didn’t break well, rushed up, and emptied out. In hindsight, I can see very easily how he got beat that day – he’s a big, heavy horse and his talent level was much more than his workmate’s, so he never was pushed and we never did really get to the bottom of him. He just wasn’t as fit as we should have had him first time out.”

When the colt came back and redeemed himself by winning a $26,000 maiden special weight at a mile and 70 yards at Remington last October, Calhoun entered him in a $100,000 allowance optional claimer of the same distance. He finished second by 4 ½ lengths after gaining the lead but tiring at the head of the stretch.

“I thought he had a big shot in there but he was a little rank and he was just learning to rate,” the trainer said. “He was inexperienced and green and still a little aggressive, and they went pretty fast and he got tired. But we’ve liked him all along and when we brought him here to run I wasn’t really looking for a grass race, I was just looking for an ‘A-other-than’ to get him in and we knew horses by More Than Ready like the turf, so we decided to enter him. I’m not saying it was a super impressive race but I liked the way he did it and I really believe just now that he’s mentally and physically ready. That’s why I went ahead and entered the Lecomte; we think he’s on the improve and this looks like a good spot.”

Jockey Rosie Napravnik, spending her first season in New Orleans, rode Action Ready in his last start and retains the mount for Saturday’s challenge.

“I kind of hand-picked her for that horse because one of her strong points is getting horses to relax and settle,” Calhoun explained. “She did it the right way the other day; it was the first time he’s been really relaxed in his races. He ran the race we wanted him to run; he was very relaxed all the way around there and it looked like the other horse was going to blow by him at the eighth pole but he just dug in and ran for home.”

Action Ready is Calhoun’s only current contender with 3-year-old stakes potential – a young allowance winner named Herp is out for a few months after surgery on a chipped sesamoid and Grant Jack, winner of the Springboard Stakes at Remington, failed to impress in the Smarty Jones Stakes. 

“We thought going into this year we had three colts that could run in the 3-year-old stakes races,” said Calhoun. “Herp we were really looking forward to and he trained very well around two turns, but he’s off to recover from that surgery. And I don’t know what we’ll do with Grant Jack, if he’ll show up down here in one of those races or stay at Oaklawn. If you compare my 3-year-olds to the top ones, obviously they don’t stack up right now, but at this time of year what you’re looking for is a steady improvement; you’re looking for one to improve mentally and physically every week and every month, and that’s how you end up entering the better 3-year-old races. That’s where Action Ready would fall, as a 3-year-old on the improve.”

Sweet Home New Orleans

With a far-flung operation of more than 100 runners that currently includes the string at Fair Grounds, a division at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas and another at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, Calhoun finds himself increasingly at home in New Orleans.

“It’s one of my favorite places to race,” he said. “I finally stepped up and bought a house here last year because I spend more time here during the year than I do any other place. I definitely enjoy my time down here; I can’t wait to get here and when the season is over I’m not ready to leave. The weather’s good, the surface is good, this is just a good place for my stable to be. My horses fit well here and the purse structure really helps out a lot, too – if you run horses here, you get rewarded for it. And one thing people notice when this meet is over, all these horses show up at big tracks all over the country and do very well.”

Calhoun has also earned the approval of the natives, people like retired rider-turned-trainer Mark Guidry.

“He’s an even-keel kind of guy, a great horseman, he’s hands on, he does a great job and you can tell he really strives for perfection,” Guidry said. “He always had a good business sense. Even starting out with four horses he was very focused, he had a direction, he had a goal. It’s great to see people reach their goals because it’s a tough, tough game. It’s always good to see a good man with good work ethics do well.”

Coming off a career-best season in 2010, Calhoun is balancing a hopeful outlook with steady realism as he plans for the year ahead.

“Obviously 2010 was by far the best year we’ve had; a lot of things went right and we capped it off with the two Breeders’ Cup wins,” he remarked. “I think 2009 was my previous best season and the stable ran around $5.3 million then, and last year we did around $7.9 million. We won a lot of stakes races besides the Breeders’ Cup events and it was a huge year, so I’m hoping that can be used as a building block to better things in the future. Hopefully off that kind of year I’ll get some of the right phone calls and pick up more high-quality horses.”