As he walks through the stalls at Laurel Park, Phil Schoenthal rattles off some of the aspects of training a racehorse: grooming, conditioning workouts, growing hydroponic barley, purchasing and maintaining equine spas and other therapy equipment, managing owner expectations, overseeing a dozen employees, traveling to horse sales to inspect and purchase racing prospects and working with farriers and veterinarians.
Schoenthal, who has spent more than 20 years in the horse racing business, is a public horse trainer, meaning he works with many horses and multiple owners, as opposed to working for a single private stable or owner.
Currently, Schoenthal has a roster of 28 horses for about 20 different clients, and he believes having a passion for horses is the single most important characteristic for a trainer.
As a very young child growing up in Illinois, Schoenthal took his first pony ride while on vacation with his parents, promptly becoming the first “horse person” in his family. Now a father of three, Schoenthal tells his kids that horse training isn’t for them if they can’t take losing well.
“The highs are high but the lows are low, so you have to maintain an even keel,” he said. “The old saying is, ‘There are a million and one things that can go wrong with a racehorse and they usually do,’ so it’s not a game for the faint of heart.”
As for racehorse owners, whose expectations he also has to manage, “you don’t judge an owner on how they take bad news but on how they handle good horses.”
Because a trainer’s earnings are largely based on a percentage of winnings, income varies greatly from year to year. Trainers typically earn between $20,000 and $60,000 a year but when a good horse wins a high-dollar race, a trainer can make a six-figure salary.
Don’t count on that, Schoenthal advised: “It’s a terrible business,” he laughed. “Trainers are the dumbest people in the world.”
He recalls years when the economy tanked, when owners’ businesses went belly up and they couldn’t pay him, and a particularly lean four years from 2009-2012 when he worked full-time selling industrial pumps and valves while training a few horses on the side.
“I was in a bad way,” he said. “I was broke, I had two little kids, and I had to cut back to training four horses. I’d come into the barn from 5:30 in the morning until 8, go to work, then come back to the barn.”
But fortunes can turn around at the race track and, in 2017, Schoenthal had his winningest year ever, with his horses earning $1,325,369.
For most horses he trains, as job security, Schoenthal purchases a ten percent share. Besides paying his own salary, he also pays his employees, and foots other expenses related to his horses with the exception of vet bills, which are paid by the owners.
Owners pay Schoenthal a day rate to offset the daily expenses of training, while and trainers rely on commissions for the lion’s share of their earnings. Jockeys work through their own agents, and might not ever meet a horse until right before a race.
Schoenthal employs grooms, “hotwalkers” (who walk horses around after a workout), exercise riders (who are separate from jockeys), assistant trainers and therapists.
Known for being brutally honest with owners, Schoenthal is a straight talker. “From my view, I don’t think you can make a horse run any faster than he’s capable of running. My job is to try to keep that horse 100 percent fit, sound, and happy so that he can perform at his peak every time.”
Racehorses in training may do a timed speed workout every seven to nine days. Other training days might include one lap of jogging and one lap of galloping around the roughly one-and-one-eighth mile track to build endurance.
“When horses arrive here, they’ve already been at a training center,” Schoenthal explained, “and they might already know how to do a workout. Most of them already understand not to be nervous or silly. A better way to look at a horse trainer is part project manager, part conditioner.”
Therapy for his horses is a huge focus for Schoenthal, who recently got a Small Business Administration loan for $100,000 to purchase an equine spa – essentially a bubbling ice bath machine – for his barn. His horses also rely on pulsed electromagnetic and laser therapies. “It extends their careers and makes them feel better,” he said.
He also grows his own sprouted barley in a hydroponic onsite greenhouse, feed that increases hydration and gives horses a more efficient uptake of nutrients.
Determined Heart, a two-year-old filly, purchased for $63,000, will have access to all of those perks, in return for giving Schoenthal what he calls “that spark and joy of a dream.”
A saying among trainers is that nobody with an un-raced two-year-old ever committed suicide. A churchgoing man, Schoenthal prefers to loosely quote 1 Corinthians: “Without hope, I am of all men most miserable.”
As Determined Heart heads to the track, Schoenthal is watching avidly. “Sometimes that horse, that one horse, shows up in your barn, and it changes everything. This is a game for dreamers and optimists.”