It is close to 4 a.m. when the coffee is poured in the Pierce household. Sally is set to head to the Woodbine backstretch to put order into her husband Malcolm’s barn of racehorses, while the trainer himself is not far behind. In another household, not many furlongs from the Rexdale, ON track, Phil England is preparing to arrive at his wife Debbie’s barn to exercise her runners before tending to his own small stable.
The Englands were one of the first prominent husband and wife teams at Woodbine, working together in a stable almost 40 years ago. Over the years, they competed against each other and helped each other and today, they have come full circle when they find themselves in the same barn again.
Husbands and wives working together at the track is a trend that has grown substantially in the last decade as men and women share their love for horses and the industry with each other. It is this passion that helps couples who work together through long hours, seven days a week, avoid the complications that may plague other couples in more general workplaces.
In 2014, many of the top Ontario trainers have their significant other in a prime role for the stable. Gail Tiller and Janis Maine don’t work on the ground in the barns, but manage the staff and billing from home for their trainer husbands, Robert Tiller and Reade Baker. Nick Gonzalez trains a stable of horses at Fort Erie while his wife Martha trains his Woodbine string. Phil Gracey, enjoying a superb 2014 campaign with a small stable of horses is backed up by his wife and assistant trainer, Susan.
“Because of the lifestyle that you lead when you work at the track, you really need someone who understands the business,” said Susan Gracey, who originally didn’t know anything about working with horses when she met Phil almost 20 years ago.
“The horses are a demanding job and no one has your back when you need help like your spouse.”
Malcolm and Sally Pierce look after some 35 horses at Woodbine, most owned by Sam-Son Farms.
“We both enjoy the horses and we love what we do,” said Sally Pierce, who works as the assistant to her husband. “We are at the barn seven days a week, but it is a large enough barn that we are not always together. When we go home, we have our own things to take care of there.”
Phil England came to Canada from England where he was an accomplished horseman and rider. He met Debbie, who fell in love with the track as a student in the early 1970s, and the pair were married in 1972. They have one daughter, Kim.
“We worked a lot together [in the first few years],” said Debbie, who has trained champions such as Diva’s Debut and Breeders’ Stakes winner Marlang. “We owned some horses together and trained them while I had a ponying business.”
The Englands each went out on their own as trainers of high profile stables and for a couple of seasons, if their horses raced against each other, they had to be coupled as a entry for betting purposes.
More recently, as many top owners that the Englands trained for in the 1980s and 90s left the business, they find themselves amalgamating again.
“I got hurt very badly three years ago,” said Debbie, who, like Phil, galloped her own horses. “Now I can’t gallop anymore so Philip works for me.”
Phil England, who trained Horse of the Year Thornfield for the late Steve Stavro and was the private trainer for Rick Kennedy when that owner raced champion Afleet, said respecting each other’s place in the barn is important.
“Two people can’t train a horse, there has to be separate roles,” said Phil. “We try to keep the barn and the track out of the rest of our day too.”
Since 1992, Mike and Josie DePaulo have worked together at Mike’s racing stable at Woodbine. Josie, who had been working in business, joined her husband to work with the horses as the stable grew.
“I remember early on we had three horses in three different stakes races on one day,” said Mike DePaulo, who recently won his 50th stakes, courtesy of champion Pender Harbour. “Josie decided it was time for her to come join the track team.”
These days, Josie, who has her assistant trainer’s license, works less with the horses and more organizing staff, training charts, billing and veterinary needs. And the racing life has carried over to their home life as well. Their son Joseph also works at the barn.
“It’s easy for us,” said Josie. “What he is responsible for, training the horses, dealing with the owners, is totally different than what I do. We’re not butting into each other’s duties.”
Mike smiles when he is asked about each other’s roles at the barn.
“She does all the tough business-type stuff every morning at the barn. But she is also the mint dispenser. I swear when the horses hear or see her, they don’t move until she gives them a mint.”
At the Phil Gracey barn, Susan Gracey works as a groom in the early hours of most mornings while Phil gallops and works the horses. The Graceys may share some other duties, but it is Phil who trains and Susan who handles the daily operations of the barn.
“I have my own jobs to do and he has his to do,” said Susan, who will organize feed and do the bookkeeping. Away from the track, the Graceys share other interests and try to keep the business talk to a minimum.
“Susan is dedicated to the business,” said Phil. “She’s very efficient and does a lot of the stuff that makes my job easier.”
The influx of couples working together in racing has grown rapidly in the last 15-20 years in part because more women are working on the backstretch in roles from trainers, assistant trainers and exercise riders.
“Really, we work at the track for so many hours a day, where else are we going to meet anybody else,” Josie DePaulo joked. “Horse racing is our whole lives.”
Susan Gracey believes that this strong bond between husband and wife and what they do for a living also gives strength to a relationship.
“Men and women working together at the track is much more prevalent now than it was 15 years ago. The understanding and compassion we have for the horses, our jobs and the business, it can give a longevity to the marriage.”