Home of the Louisiana Derby

Feature: Things Looking Up for Trainer Neil Howard

Let us examine Neil Howard’s last season at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. Given the grim nature of the subject, we’ll be brief.

Fifty-seven starters, only three victories. A five percent win rate. Runners simply not hitting their conditions, a frustrating winter for sure.

Now let us focus upon the affable trainer’s current meet, a much better topic. Wins? Eight from 22 starters, up to a healthy 36 percent. Horses in the money? Naturally, 45 percent of the time. Earnings thus far? $204,220 – compared to just $162,930 brought in here over the course of the entire former season.

Yes, things are looking up for Howard at Fair Grounds, and no one could be more humbly thankful than the 60-year-old horseman himself.

“We’re thrilled; our meet has been going very, very well,” Howard said Friday morning during training hours at the Louisiana oval. “We anticipated – as much as you’re going to anticipate in this business – that we had a good chance for things to come together this past fall, going into winter. We had some young horses that looked like they had a lot of upside to them. Physically they were all there, but a few of them looked like patience was going to be the key. We had some that were a little immature, and now they’re starting to train real smoothly and nicely, they way you like to see them go.”

Howard will saddle one of those young horses, Gailardia Racing LLC’s Wilkinson, in the first Kentucky Derby prep at Fair Grounds this year – Saturday’s Grade III Lecomte Stakes. The 3-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid ran second twice – once at Keeneland and once at Churchill – before breaking his maiden here on Dec. 10 and returning to run third in a Jan. 1 allowance race behind Justin Phillip, the 7-5 morning line favorite for the Lecomte.

“He’s a beautiful colt and right now we’re keeping the door (to the Triple Crown trail) open for him,” Howard said. “I do feel there was a little glitch in his last race; I ran him back a little quick and he might have regressed or bounced just a hair. Also, the horse that beat him is a serious horse. I know Uncle Mo is leading the division right now, but this is some kind of horse, this Justin Phillip. Having said that, the way Wilkinson trained after his last race really impressed me and he’s doing very good now.”

Those used to seeing Howard’s name only beside horses owned by William S. Farish’s Lane’s End Farm will now note the addition of owners like Gailardia Racing or Courtlandt Farms. Last season, after training privately for Farish since 1984, the trainer opened a public stable. He’s since obtained a variety of well-bred runners in addition to those from Lane’s End for his 30-horse operation at Fair Grounds (he also has approximately 10 runners at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington).

Donald Adam, who owns Courtlandt and was also involved in partnerships with Farish years ago, said the opportunity to place more of his runners with Howard was a welcome one.

“I’ve known Neil for a long time; he’s a gentleman first and foremost, and I’ve always had admiration for his horsemanship and talent as a trainer,” he remarked. “On occasion Mr. Farish was kind enough to allow me to put a horse or two in training with him but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome because he really worked solely for Mr. Farish. When he became a public trainer it gave me the opportunity to provide him with more of our horses, and we’ve attempted to send him some of our best quality. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that has worked out perfectly because Neil is very, very patient – and one thing I’ve come to respect and admire about him is that he starts them when he thinks they’re ready to win and can be competitive. He picks their spots very carefully.”

The case of 3-year-old Chloe Kate, a Courtlandt Farms filly, is a perfect example. Entered in Saturday’s Silverbulletday Stakes, she ran instead in Thursday’s featured $49,000 allowance optional claimer, which she won when it was taken off the Stall-Wilson turf course.

“All along, the plan with this filly was to try and go with her from junior high, into high school, then to the next step from there,” Howard explained. “She broke her maiden here very nicely, by more than six lengths, but running back first time against winners is always a tall order – then if you add in a stake like the Silverbulletday, it’s not ideal. The result probably would be a good chance she’s gonna run third or fourth, she’s gonna run her eyeballs out, but I felt the race could have moved her back a little bit rather than being the next step forward. We think she’s the quality of the fillies in the Silverbulletday, but later, because she’s growing and filling out still. So we’re giving her the chance to do that.”

If anything were to characterize Howard’s training philosophy it would be judicious placing tempered by cautious realism. That approach has taken him to multiple training titles at Churchill Downs and one at Keeneland, a 1990 Preakness Stakes win with Summer Squall, a 2003 Horse of the Year season with Mineshaft, and successful campaigns with major stakes contenders like Mambo in Seattle, Secret Status and Grasshopper.

“You’ve gotta be careful with the young ones, especially when it’s only January,” the trainer said. “If you think they’re decent and each race has been better and you know you’ve got something there, you have to be sure you handle it the right way. I’m very cautious and a lot of times you’ve just got to take that ‘wait and see’ approach.”

Jockey Robby Albarado, sidelined after breaking his heel in a gate mishap earlier this season, has ridden first call for Howard for years and was aboard both Wilkinson and Chloe Kate in their last starts. Reached at his home in New Orleans where he was recovering from surgery on the injured heel, Albarado said Howard’s understanding of racing is second to none.

“I’m gonna be biased about it because we’re personal friends, but I’d say he’s the very best I’ve ridden for,” remarked the jockey, who is pointing for a March return to racing. “He understands that you take your time, especially with the younger horses. He’s hands-on, he watches them train closely, and he tries to place them in the right spots. When he first went public it was a big change for him, since he had trained privately for Mr. Farish so long. Now he’s dealing with a lot of different owners, but he’s a classy guy and he gets classy clients who trust him with their good horses. It’s starting to snowball and you can see a change in the last few months as these horses are starting to mature.”

Howard, who also has Farish’s Insider Tip in the Grade III Colonel E.R. Bradley Handicap on Saturday, said he expects another wave of runners – including 3-year-old hopefuls such as Courtlandt’s Prime Cut and Machen for future Kentucky Derby preps – to be ready to roll in the upcoming months.

“Horses always train well here at Fair Grounds; the track is good, the turf is good, we’re very comfortable,” he said. “Everything we thought we were going to have this season has run up to our expectations, and we have another group of horses coming along that, knock on wood, we expect to do just as well.”