BOZICH | Can a teetotaler win the Kentucky Derby? John Sherriffs - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Can a teetotaler win the Kentucky Derby? John Sherriffs has just the horse

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John Shirreffs won the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Giacomo. He'll chase another with Gormley Saturday. John Shirreffs won the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Giacomo. He'll chase another with Gormley Saturday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – More than 165,000 people will turn Churchill Downs upside down Saturday, celebrating the Kentucky Derby by sampling mint juleps and imported beers.

I have identified one visitor guaranteed not to imbibe anything stronger than carrot juice.

That is Gormley, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, assigned Derby post position 18, listed at 15-1 in the morning line, a reasonable threat at a mile-and-a-quarter for multiple reasons.

Gormley is trained by John Shirreffs, one of four trainers in Saturday’s race with a Derby victory. Gormley is the kind of horse you’d treat to Rainbow Blossom, not Molly Malone’s.

You remember Shirreffs for the jarring Derby upset he scored with Giacomo a dozen years ago, but he’s more than a guy who won with a 50-to-1 colt. Shirreffs trained Zenyatta, the fabulous filly who won 19 of 20 starts and was honored as Horse of the Year in 2009.

Shirreffs believes in legitimate rewards for horses that work hard and pay attention. Zenyatta’s reward was a pint of Guinness beer.

“Zenyatta loved Guinness,” Shirreffs said. “We tried to limit her to one bottle. She’d drink one just like that. Chug it. Put it in her little green bowl and watch it disappear.”

If Guinness and its creamy top was the magic nectar for one of racing’s greatest horses, it is reasonable to expect Shirreffs has offered the Irish stout to other runners.

Gormley was given his pint.

“He didn’t like Guinness,” Shirreffs said.

This is the beverage Gormley prefers, the one that has helped him win four of six races, including three graded stakes, all in California:

A zesty smoothie blended with 20 pounds of carrots, water and one apple.

“There always has to be a reward,” said Shirreffs, who brought his juice machine from Southern California to Barn 42 on the Churchill backstretch.

Shirreffs will turn 72 next month. He has limited his barn to 20 horses because he wants to understand the personality of every horse he trains. He learned the game the old-fashioned way, working on a farm, riding horses and then making his way to the track. He is a former Marine who served in Vietnam, as well as a voracious reader. He is also the only trainer I’ve interviewed who had several iPhone apps he wanted to share. Shirreffs has more trust in his animals than he does in The Racing Form.

“Anything a horse does, if you want them to do it well, they have to find some sort of reward,” he said. “It can be very subtle. It can be a carrot. It can be the rider relaxing, putting his hand on the horse’s neck.

“Anything at all that tells a horse, ‘You know, you’re doing it right.’ And the horse gets that message. They really do get the message.”

You’re certain of that?

“Oh, absolutely,” Shirreffs said. “Absolutely. They’re intuitive and they’re always aware of their environment.”

Some guys train by the stopwatch. Some do it the way Woody Stephens and Charlie Whittingham ruled. Some convince owners to empty their pockets for the most expensive yearlings.

Shirreffs will argue there is nothing extraordinary about the way that he works but he talks about horses the way others talk about family pets.

He trains by touch, with rewards, by instinct, pouring Guinness or Carrot/Apple juice into feed tubs.

I told him I had a 5-month-old puppy and asked Shirreffs if he had an opening at 3 p.m. for a self-control session.

Shirreffs laughed. He’s not hesitant to laugh at Derby silliness.

Puppies, horses, goats. The goal is to get the animal to do what the trainer expects not what the animal demands.

“You have a puppy, right?” Shirreffs said. “As you know they always want to affect their environment. She wants to get things going her way. Any animal wants to do that. They do anything they can to try to change things so they have their environment the way they want.

“What you do is work with them so you can have the environment the way that we want. The two of you.”

The next question is obvious: How does this translate into outrunning 19 other talented and determined horses over a mile-and-a-quarter Saturday?

Shirreffs, a calm, thoughtful guy, had an answer for that, too.

“Coming to a new place, the environment is a little different,” he said. “There is a lot of activity. There are a lot of cars going by. People walking by. Getting to the track you have to go through a little bit of a crowd.

“It’s just the horses learning to adjust to their environment mostly. You want a focused horse. None of them are too mature right now. But as long as they’re focused on the task, then it makes it a little easier. That’s what we have to do is get them focused.”

“The plan is to train the focus into the horse on the track, at the starting gate and in the barn. Especially in the barn because that is where horses live most of the day.

“If they hear a noise and they jump and they shuffle their feet, right? That puts them into a nervous state.

“Obviously you just put your hand on their mane and you talk to them and say, ‘Don’t worry about it. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. You’re going to be OK. We can just walk by this.’

“If it happens again they won’t overreact to it. It takes weeks or months. It’s always the pattern. You try to set the pattern. You want to repeat that pattern over and over again so that’s the pattern that the horse knows.

“You use kindness. Kindness and trust. Tone of voice. Touching. Touching is big. Always talking to them is big. Just developing that trust that we’re a team and we’re working together.”

Working together for one big, thunderous run from Gormley for Shirreffs late Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs in Kentucky Derby 143. The carrot juice will be waiting.

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