For my first interview, there was never any question about who I would choose. Brian S. House is one of the most successful trainers on the Louisiana circuit. In the early stages of my horseracing career, I was a part of the House stable. I was pretty excited about having Brian in the hotseat, but I have to admit I was also a little hesitant because I knew I would be asking him some personal questions. Maybe even some painful ones. And Brian House doesn't grant many interviews. He'd probably tell you it's a waste of valuable time he could be spending in the barn. We sat down recently and, as always, House immediately put me at ease.
"It's a lot easier to answer questions from someone you like," House says, chuckling.
Q: Over the last five years you have posted a remarkable 41% win rate with first time starters and a 32% win rate with horses coming back from a layoff. What goes into producing those kinds of stats?
When a trainer is dealing with a young horse, a first-time starter if you will, or an older horse coming off a layoff, there are three critical ingredients that must comprise the major makeup of the the formula or strategy for immediate success.
The first is patience. You must be willing to repress your own desire to see the horse run and wait until it is truly ready. My hatred of losing overcomes my desire to simply run for the sake of running or "giving the horse an out." Races are wars. No war can be won without an honest boot camp to prepare.
The second is evaluation of talent. Where does the horse belong race-wise? Claiming, allowance, sprint or route, etc.
The third is more patience. When most trainers (myself included) believe the horse is ready, wait a little longer and you're probably ready then. Of course, owners must be perspicacious and forgiving enough to tolerate these things we're talking about, and I think most are, if they understand the circumstances and deal with them fairly.
Q: The Louisiana State Senate recently ruled that new rules regarding vet checks and drug testing of horses implemented by the Louisiana State Racing Commission should be rescinded. These rule changes were accomplished via the LSRC's "emergency rule" clause. Has the LSRC abused the "emergency rule" provision?
Absolutely, thus the ruling. HBPA (Horsemen's Benevolent Protection Association) President Sean Alfortish and attorney David Gelpi handled the situation masterfully. We are all interested in the welfare of the animal. That goes without saying. Some of the rules, however, were unreasonable and did not merit use of the "emergency rule." In looking at the steroid section of the now-defunct rule, I thought I was going to see Barry Bonds or Jose Canseco wearing jockey silks in the paddock or something. Whether the underlying steroid problem with human athletes precipitated some of this, I don't know, but the differences are apparent and the action unnecessary and counter-productive.
Q: Who do you respect most in the racing community?
(House pauses here before answering. It is obvious this is an emotional topic for him). Andy Leggio, Larry Robideux, and Connie Tassistro. I call them the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Not necessarily in that order. My admiration and respect for them is immeasurable, each for different reasons. And there are several others I have admired through they years-- Charlie Whittingham, Willard Proctor, Bobby Barnett, Ron Ardoin, and others. People who were not simply great horsemen but great men.
Q: You and the first three men you mentioned had some involvement in the development of Eclipse Award Winner Joseph Talamo. Give me six words of advice, no more no less, for Joe Talamo.
(With no hesitation) Desperately educate and exercise your mind.
Q: What is your position on the involvement of gaming companies in horseracing?
It has become a necessity, I suppose. Ideally, we in racing could witness a growth of fanbase like NASCAR has seen or golf has enjoyed, but it takes serious marketing and the infusion of capital is more readily attainable through gaming. I believe it is a short-term fix, but it is practical reality.
Q: Of your numerous accomplishments which one stands out?
Randy Ponthier learning to read while grooming for me in 2006 stands out. People like Vince Cline and yourself who I had some small hand in assisting in some way as they started in this business and feeling their respect to this day as I admire my aforementioned heroes. I suppose it is an unusual answer, but I want to feel an impact in some small way on the human race, not simply race horses. My competitive nature will never allow me to remember any accomplishment with a racehorse. My feats thus far pale when compared to many others, but, irrespective of that, I will never feel a lingering pride in any past, present, or future accomplishments. The credit belongs with the athlete. My job is to shoulder the blame when a goal is not met, and silently understand that we do a good job and take it seriously every moment of every day and let the chips carefully fall where they may.....with a steadying hand to allow them safe landing.
Q: Some have characterized you as difficult and self-absorbed. Your response?
Difficult I accept. My drive for perfection with respect to the preparation and well-being of a horse is, well, antiquated I suppose. I never recall my father taking one day off my entire life. He would live to eighty-three years of age and every day he aspired for perfection. I can remember taking two hours and a half to shoe a horse, rubbing legs 45 minutes per limb, hours maybe improving a hinge on a stall door or creating some brace or piece of equipment to help a horse. I remember digging and delving into the mindset of a horse for days on end, trying incessantly to solve the puzzle of why it wasn't competing at the level it should. It counted. It was a four-star alarm, a dire emergency, if all factors and elements surrounding the athlete were not perfect. I cannot change. I would rather retire---young.
Self-absorbed I do not accept. I understand the perception; it is inevitable. Part of it is my fault. You asked me earlier about who I admire in this business. One of the reasons I so admire Andy Leggio is his grace and forthrightness. I have not matured to that point yet and I know it. Bobby Barnett is another. I admire Mr. Barnett not simply for how he wins, but how he loses. I saw Answer Lively, I believe it was, run third at Oaklawn Park in 1998 or 99 in a big race he probably should have won, at least in the public's eye. You would never have known by his actions that he had just lost. I learned a great deal that afternoon and to this day remain stoic in victory, but still working on outward grace in defeat. Self-absorbed, however, is unfair. I give too much of myself to others for that adjective to be included in a description. Driven is probably closer, in my opinion, albeit subjective. If something is going on to the detriment of the horse, I rail against it and let the criticism come. People who have been a part of that scenario sometimes call it "self-absorbed". How about "horse-absorbed"?
Q: What is your chief regret?
Aside from my sometimes failing to give Stacy (House's wife) her proper credit and appreciation for her work and emotional support, it is probably my witnessing the changes this sport has undergone from the trainer's standpoint. We talked earlier about the urgency for things to be as close to perfect as possible for the horse and the hours of work involved...in the old days, anyway. Now, we have trainers near the top of the "standings" who know little about true horsemanship and training the horse and have even less work ethic. They simply claim horses (purchase a horse out of a claiming race where all the entrants are entered for a sale price) and run them for half or less of what they claimed them for. One trainer at Fairgrounds had over $115,000 worth of horses in three races (his owners had claimed the three horses for that amount) and they were running for a total of $30,000 for the three! This trainer sported an impressive 29% win percentage. That stat is terribly deceiving. A quality barn would probably be sporting a 49% average given that ridiculous amount of fiscal irresponsibility. There is no integrity in these "claim and drop" practices. I hope to see a rule requiring all horses claimed anywhere in the world to run at the level at which they were claimed for ninety days. We need to stop these practices for the sake of racing and the gambling public, and this may help.
Q: How much involvement is right for an owner?
(Smiling broadly) Listen, the owners make this sport go. You'll hear things from trainers like, "That owner wanted to run his horse too soon" or "over their head" but we are usually equally guilty at least. Having said that, it has always proven best when the owner allows the trainer to make the majority of the decisions. The trainer is the one "sleeping with the horse" and living with it daily. If he or she is not, the owner should dismiss that individual and find someone he can trust and feels confident with. Look at Dr. Glen Warren and Leggio, David Beard and Robideux, Charlene Thorson and Connie. They are teams. Those owners have confidence in their trainer, and when you look at some of their accomplishments together, it is striking. They didn't go claim some horse for $50,000 and win ten races for $10,000. Look up Witt Ante, Sarah Lanes Oats, Candid Glen, Cinemine, or Meteor Impact. Those kinds of accomplishments are striking and inspiring. Those are the honest statistics that ring true forever. If you knew how little some of these horses cost at a sale or how shaky some of the breeding was, you wouldn't believe the accomplishment. Happy Ticket (the all-time leading Louisiana-bred horse, earning over $2,000,000) is not by a million dollar horse and the dam was not terribly spectacular. Stewart Madison knew what he wanted and knew Andy could help patiently deliver. Of course, Happy Ticket had a small hand in it, didn't she? The owner must have reasoned confidence, and allow the trainer the room to get the job done. I have some great ones who are beginning to reap a few rewards because of it.
Q: Shortly before the beginning of the 2007 Louisiana Downs meet you said that 2007 was a rebuilding year for the Brian House Barn. Now, one year later, how would you rate the barn's progress?
It has been a rebuilding year for certain. When you initiate that process it's different than, say, an NFL franchise rebuilding. With the equine athlete you not only have to "draft" athletes, but you are compelled to draft athletes that will work within a racetrack's and racing secretary's parameters. You may find yourself subjugated by the idiosyncratic nature of the sport. I'll give you one example. Radishes is a six year old gelding (castrated male horse) who had not raced in two years. Although he had suffered an injury earlier in his career, we elected to bring him into our stable for his return at the request of his owner. As the weeks passed on, Radishes began doing quite well and did win a non-winners of two for $5,000 rather easily. After much consideration, we decided to challenge the horse and ran him in a $41,000 conditional allowance race (a race for higher quality horses who are not for sale) at the Fair Grounds. He finished third just missing a wire-to-wire win by a whisker. I have had more telephone calls from well-wishers and prospective buyers for that horse than I can remember having in years. Of course, now he is set to be very tough to beat in his next outing in a similar race. One problem. There will be no similar race through the Fair Grounds meet. Instead they have added an additional condition to the race which carries a claiming price of $35,000, which means any horse willing to run for that sale price can run with these conditional allowance horses (horses which run at the allowance level and not for a claiming, or sale, price). This basically allows horses that may have won 15 allowance races to run against a horse who has yet to win one race at that level. I see that as being inherently unfair, so Radishes is through racing at Fair Grounds and one corner of your rebuilding project is compromised due to the rationale of one racing secretary.
Another piece of the rebuilding puzzle is your owners and your staff. We have been able to secure a couple of quality owners who have allowed us to develop some nice horses in the proper fashion. My employees are doing a great job, and the process has been moderately successful thus far. Cigar Starter and Shanian's Twin have shown us some ability on some level. (Since conducting this interview both have gone on to win multiple races). We're hoping a few of the experienced, older horses will round back into form. Perfectforthepart is training beautifully after her effort in the Regret Stakes and subsequent turn-out time. We have some youngsters showing some promise, and with some luck and patience, I believe we will be not just competitive on any level, but maybe competitive, at least with some of the horses, on a higher level. I believe we are stronger than we were last year, so that part of the mission appears to be on its way to some sort of positive conclusion....for now, anyway.
Q: During the summer of 2007, Somethinabouthim, a colt for whom you had high expectations, suffered a serious injury in his debut at Louisiana Downs. How do you deal with the emotional roller coaster of victory and defeat?
I guess, Scott....well....a career ending, or seemingly career ending injury is a different kind of defeat. Twenty-two months of almost perfect preparation and highest anticipation drained from your entire being in an instant. You subconsciously almost expect or hope for the worldwide media to come crashing in to ask about the tragedy and extol the virtues of the colt which may help ease the pain, but no one comes. He wasn't proven. His opportunity was cut short. In reality, that incident ranks well up on my list of regrets. His name will not be written in the annals of racing history. He was the real thing. Nothing could be done. His owner and I have that kind of relationship we talked about earlier. One day I hope Gayla Rankin and Brian House are thought about in the same vein as some of those others. Maybe we'll see some of Somethinabouthim's progeny on the track in a few years. He's doing well on the farm. It is the nature of this sport. Thank God there is always tomorrow, and another race to run.
On behalf of AccessAthletes, we would like to thank Brian for taking time out of his busy schedule to do an interview with The Real Athlete Blog.