If you love Thoroughbred horse racing and want a hands-on career in the industry, building a career as a trainer can be a rewarding occupation. It is also the most all-encompassing and perhaps most difficult of jobs at which to earn a living.

There may be no better feeling than getting to know your racehorse, preparing him to be at his absolute top condition for a race, and watching the fruits of that labour rise to the top when he crosses the finish line first.

A trainer’s job is so much more, however, than just focusing on your horse. Trainers are responsible for buying feed and stall bedding, hiring staff, working with veterinarians, communicating with owners, making entries and completing mounds of paperwork from accounting to insurance forms.

Backstretch Background

The requirement of number of years working on the backstretch as a groom varies from province to province. Woodbine’s qualifications to apply to take a trainer’s test (which is usually offered five times a year, although all dates are cancelled this year due to COVID-19) is five years of practical work as a groom for a stable that has at least five horses. This rule is subject to the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario’s testing committee.

In Alberta, at ‘A’ tracks such as Century Mile or Century Downs, an applicant must be a groom for two years before applying to take the trainer’s test through the Alberta HBPA and Horse Racing Alberta stewards. At ‘B’ tracks, such as Evergreen Park, the applicant can meet with stewards who could grant the licence without any examinations, depending on a person’s prior experience.

Tiffany Husbands, 28, began working at the track when she was a teenager growing up in Manitoba, getting the bug from family members in the industry including her cousin Alyssa Selman, who was a jockey. She wanted to ride, but she got married (to jockey Chris Husbands) and had children and instead stayed ‘on the ground’ working with horses.

“It is important to work for one big outfit or as many trainers as you can,” said Husbands. “Gain as much experience as you can. I worked for some top trainers such as Rob Atras and Emile Corbel and through them you learn all the rules and training methods and you form your own as you go along.”

Tony Gattellaro began training on the west coast, first at Portland Meadows in Washington and then at Hastings Park in Vancouver. He is in his sixth year of training and now has a stable of 20 horses at Woodbine.

“You have to work for outfits for a while to understand how to run the business,” said Gattellaro. “Not just training horses, but managing a business, managing people.”

Tests and other qualifications

Some jurisdictions, such as Ontario, will require a person to take an assistant trainer’s test initially and work in that role for another trainer. Through the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario, the assistant trainer’s test has a fee of $100 and is similar to the trainer’s test, as it has three categories: practical, horsemanship and rules. Horsemanship and rules are done through written tests. A passing mark for an assistant trainer’s test is 80% for each category.

Passing marks for the trainer’s test in Ontario is 90% for each individual category. If the applicant received a mark from 70% to 88%, they are able to write the test again once more in a calendar year.

In Alberta there are two tiers to the trainer’s test: the written test through the HBPA of Alberta and the oral examination through Horse Racing Alberta stewards.

The HBPA of Manitoba also has a three-part test to become a trainer, slightly different than that in Ontario.

“Part 1 is a written test that a person hoping to obtain a trainer’s licence must score 80% or higher to go on to parts 2 and 3. The HBPA provides study material for anyone wanting to take the test,” said Shannon Dawley, office manager for the HBPA Manitoba.

“Part 2 is the practical barn test. The person being tested is asked to go into an approved barn (trainer that is licensed and a part of the HBPA membership) and does a number required elements, such as bandaging (standing, run-downs, etc.) and tacking (training saddle, bridle etc.). Categories are graded on knowledge and technique. The HBPA works with the person being tested and our membership to set up the barn test.”

Dawley also describes the “race-day saddling” category of the test, part 3. “The person being tested is asked to set up a day and race that they are able to saddle a horse for a race. The paddock judge will observe and pass/ fail the person being tested based on the observation of their ability to saddle a horse. This is a normal race routine (with jockey valets present) and the horse is entered to run the day chosen. In the event the person being tested does not have a horse running in their own name, arrangements with a licensed trainer, the commission office and the paddock judge must be made and approved prior to the test.”

In addition to passing the tests with the required marks, other qualifications, such as those noted by the HBPA Ontario, include:

Provide all documents listed on the Document Checklist, including AGCO Licensing history, work experience chart

Confirmations in writing that you or your immediate family own horses and/or, you have a job offer from a licensed owner to train his/her horses (include statistics)

Pay all testing fees in full prior to writing the Trainer’s test(s)

The HBPA Trainers Testing Committee can, at their discretion, limit the applicant to an Owner/Trainer license, which means that they can only train horses that they or their immediate family (includes Spouse, Parent and/or Child) own for a period of one to three years.

Download the HBPA Ontario Trainer’s Application here.

Preparing a Winning Barn

So you have your trainer’s license, now what?

If you are starting out with a public stable (not hired as a private trainer for one owner) you may have horses strictly owned by clients, or perhaps you have bought your own horse or shares of a horse. “As a trainer, you are operating your own business unless you are working privately for one barn,” said Gattellaro. “You should have a good base of money [to start], about $50,000-$100,000.”

The number-one responsibility of a trainer is the horse, of course. From the wee hours of the morning until lunch time, preparing a racehorse means keeping your horse healthy, comfortable and happy. “You have to get to know your horses,” said Husbands who, like many trainers, gallops her own horses.

Whether you exercise your own horses or not, getting a feel for what your horse enjoys as a daily routine of training is key to bringing out the full potential of your horse.

“Really, most of training is not horse stuff; that is about six hours a day. Most of the other stuff you are worried about is clients, invoicing, books, insurance and taxes. It’s not just throwing on a saddle a horse.”

Depending on which track you are stabled at, there can be options for training each morning, such as shedrow jogging, track galloping or exercise off the track such as in Baker’s Acres, a European-style trail offered at Woodbine.

Determining a workout schedule for your horse to have him ready for a race should be recorded and be handy at the barn. Next comes picking a race, and you must become familiar with the condition books, the list of races upcoming at a track, Trainers choose a rider through their agent and then make the race-day entry at the race office.

Establishing a day rate ‒ how much you charge your owner for each day you have their horse in your track barn ‒ is done to cover the cost of bedding, hay, staff and feed that the trainer must pay for. Day rates can vary and at Woodbine it can be $85 to $120.

At tracks in other parts of Canada where purses are much smaller, the day rates are significantly lower.

“Day rate, basically, is a break-even for the trainer,” said Gattellaro. “After you pay for the worker’s insurance and your staff plus all of the things each horse needs, you may have a couple of bucks left over.”

Gattellaro said getting quality help, grooms, exercise riders and hotwalkers is key ‒ and expensive.
“Grooms can make $800 a week to rub five horses, freelance riders get paid by the horse and you have to pay everyone adequately to get the best.”

Trainers will also have their own veterinarian that they will use each day and these vets usually have their own businesses at the track.

“Really, most of training is not horse stuff; that is about six hours a day. Most of the other stuff you are worried about is clients, invoicing, books, insurance and taxes. It’s not just throwing on a saddle a horse.”

That Winning Feeling

Picking the right race for your horse, and his owner, as many like to be involved in that process, will mean everything to how much money a trainer will make each year.

“Trainers make their living off their 10 per cent that they earn from a horse’s earnings or, if you own a share of a horse, your part of the purse money,” said Gattellaro.

Trainers will earn 10 per cent of a horse’s finish from first through to fifth place, or in the case of Gattellaro, from first to third. “I do that to try and attract new clients. And some people may have lower day rates to attract clients.”

Husbands, in her third year of training, says keeping your horses competitive in their races is a must.
“You do have to win races or get seconds and thirds to make money,” she said.

Husbands, who won five races in 2019 for purses of about $40,000, has already won four races from 15 starters in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic that has negatively affected racing dates and horse population at Canadian tracks. She also won her first-ever stakes race when first-time starter Dazzling Gold won the restricted Hazel Wright Sires Stakes for Starfield Stable. Husbands is just one win shy of last year’s total and her purse earnings are already close to her total from 2019.

Gattellaro has one win and four other placings from his 15 starter thus far in 2020. He is coming off a career year in training with 10 wins and purses over $530,000. Both Gattellaro and Husbands agree that you might not necessarily get rich with a career as a trainer, but that the best part of the job is spending your days with Thoroughbreds.

“I don’t think you can make a living [training racehorses] the way you can at other jobs, but it’s a passion. If you have a passion for horses it sucks you in so much that as long as you make enough to live, support yourself and your family, then you will be happy.”


Trainer stats in Canada 2020, through July 7

(*Hastings Racecourse had only just started its meet July 6)

Assiniboia Downs – 36 of 55 trainers had won at least 1 race, Purse winnings range from $5,000 to $240,000 (leading trainer)

Century Mile – 20 of 38 – Purse earnings from $7,000 to $42,000
Fort Erie – 51 of 87 – Purse earnings from $82,000 – $8,000
Woodbine – 33 of 175 – Purse earnings from $900,000 – $16,000

From all of 2019 – Woodbine
313 Trainers started at least 1 horse at the meeting. About 12% of those were ship-ins from other parts of the world
170 trainers had at least 10 starts by horses at the meeting
earning from $6 million for one trainer to $17,000