They Shoot Up Horses, Don't They?

Owner Michael Gill and trainer Mark Shuman, exonerated by lab test, hit back

"Where else do you get punished for being the best at something?" the trainer says, his eyes flashing angrily.

Shuman is a confident, hands-on trainer who clambers bearlike into the stalls to check hooves and fetlocks, doing all the strapping and saddle-cinching while his grooms stand and watch. All of the awkwardness disappears when Shuman is around his charges. On his early-morning rounds around the barn, he pokes and probes, barking orders about one chunky nag ("Cut back his feed"), carefully scrutinizing another, who's shrinking toward the back of his stall.

There's a kind of Zen of horseracing, he suggests: Understand your horses. "Some horses just have a desire to run," he says. "You can have the soundest horse in the world and he won't run. And you can have a horse with all of these little aches and pains and he'll run through them."

Gill and Shuman had a wonderful season until Casual Conflict died on February 3
Colby Katz
Gill and Shuman had a wonderful season until Casual Conflict died on February 3

Horse training is a lot like human training: a little glory when your athlete comes through and a lot of nursing minor injuries during downtime. Shuman talks knowledgeably about the jolting effects on a horse of the sandy Gulfstream main track ("It's very hard and unforgiving"), and about his decision to shoe one of his animals with oval-shaped "bar" shoes. "He's a big heavy horse, and he pounds his heels," Shuman says. "Squeeze him there and you'll make him flinch."

But Shuman also has a harsh side. He shows it while preparing Boston Brat for a stakes race in West Virginia. The six-year-old set the Gulfstream track record in January for the five-furlong sprint by smoking the field with a sizzling 56.2 seconds. As Shuman, with a hand-held timer, watches from a platform overlooking the Gulfstream backstretch, Boston Brat canters out onto the track under exercise rider Eric Cohn. The rider leads the horse into a half-mile sprint, and Shuman checks his timepiece. He scowls. It's as if the powerful horse had been running through sludge.

Cohn trots back and looks down sheepishly. "That's as slow as he's going to go," Cohn says.

"Who said anything about slow?" Shuman demands, lashing into his rider. "We can only breeze him so many times, you know. Now I'm going to have to bring him back out here on Wednesday. We're shipping him to a stakes race a thousand miles from here in ten days. If he breaks down, I'm holding you personally responsible." The slow pace may have had more to do with the horse than the rider. On May 3, Boston Brat finished out of the money at Mountaineer Race Track in Chester.

Mark Shuman was born in Ohio, where he came to racing, like a lot of other trainers, by following in the footsteps of his father. Joe Shuman is still a fixture at Thistledown in Cleveland, having trained there for 30 years while working as a teacher at a nearby high school. Like other stable brats, Mark was always around racehorses as a kid. Before he started college at Miami University, Ohio, he thought he was going to be a veterinarian. But then an 8:00 a.m. class in organic chemistry interceded, and he switched to exercise physiology.

"My father always said you should have something to fall back on," Shuman recalls. After college he started apprenticing with a series of established trainers, including Thomas Skeffington, Howie Tesher, and James Bond, all of whom are well-known to racing fans. Skeffington told him, "Work with as many trainers as you can. Learn from all of them. Learn from the grooms." It's advice that he still follows. "I have grooms who teach me things about my horses," he says.

In 2000 Joe Shuman developed colon cancer, and Mark hurried home to attend to his father's 35-horse stable operation at Thistledown. "He was going to give up the horses," the younger Shuman says of his dad. "But after I came back, he didn't miss a day at the track. He was in chemo, and he looked like hell, but he was there."

Then Shuman went out on his own, picking up a few clients here and there in Ohio and Delaware. In 2001 a track blacksmith told him about Michael Gill, a New Hampshire mortgage banker with an obsession for thoroughbreds. By then Shuman had moved to South Florida and was preparing to make a stab at the big time at Gulfstream. "Mr. Gill called me up and offered me a job in Maryland, but I said I couldn't pass up the opportunity of racing in Florida," Shuman recalls. "I hung up, and then for two hours, I literally hit my head against a wall. I called him back and said, 'You know, I just turned down a job without even knowing what it was.'"

The job was overseeing a stable of 22 horses that were racing at Laurel Park in Laurel, Maryland. Shuman packed up again. He had middling success at Laurel, enough to think about finally graduating to South Florida. He also earned a black mark on his record. In April 2001 he was suspended for fifteen days when two of his horses tested positive for a banned muscle relaxant (a minor infraction, Shuman says, based on an overdose of a medication the horses had used in training). Though plenty of other trainers have been hit with suspensions, even some of Shuman's critics, this was something his adversaries made much of when things started getting hot at Gulfstream. "The fact is, he's come up positive in the past," Walder says knowingly.

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