Hall of Fame Coach Ron McAnally can be found in the morning, sitting in a chair on the second-floor balcony of his Barn I at the back of the Del Mar racetrack. That has been his specialty for more than 50 years. High enough to look over the fence and see the horses at work in their morning. Very humbling for a living legend whose career spans decades and whose achievements are unparalleled.
McAnally will be honored this weekend with the prestigious Pincay Award, presented annually to an individual who has served horse racing with “integrity, extraordinary dedication, determination and distinction.” Prize winners include Noble Threewitt, Mel and Warren Stute, Jerry and Ann Moss, Art Sherman, Eddie Delahoussaye and Chris McCarron, to name a few.
McAnally and Pincay, who will present the award to McAnally on Saturday, have come a long way and, in fact, they still hang out together.
“I work out in a gym (in Arcadia) with him,” said 90-year-old McAnally, “and I tell everyone, he (Pincay, 75) can bike tomorrow. She keeps her weight very well.”
You know you’re in the presence of racing royalties when McAnally talks about the racers he’s hired.
“Laffit and Chris McCarron and (Bill) Shoemaker, some of the best,” McAnally said. “We won a lot of races.”
You won’t find anyone going to a particular racetrack as long as McAnally goes to Del Mar. This is his 74th summer here. He first hit the Oval Office in 1948, however, McAnally will tell you, he didn’t set out to be a horseman.
“Many years ago, I went to the University of Cincinnati,” McAnally began. “I was meant to be an electrician, a repairman and all that. But it was something that took a lot of math and I was bad at school. We grew up in an orphanage in Kentucky, five people. My mother and father died when we were very young.My uncle (Reggie Cornell of Silky Sullivan fame) came to see me and wanted to know if I wanted to work at the track, at Rockingham Park in New England. starting at the lowest earns 30 dollars a week. That’s how I learned to love horses.”
He was then a groomer and then an assistant coach and in 1952 he began training at Hollywood Park.
“If you have a good horse, you can train it,” says McAnally. “(Bob) Baffert tells me what he does, how he works with him and that stuff and I say to him, ‘Bob, I don’t want to hear that; just give it to me. horse.’ Like John Henry, I’ve got the horse.”
John Henry is Ron McAnally’s magic horse. The small, not beautiful came to him when he was only 4 years old.
“Sometimes a horse needs a little bit of psychology,” says McAnally. “The man who had him before I used to beat him because he was too mean. And then they detained him so that when we got him he wasn’t a pretty horse. When he sold him brought in $1,500, so I started thinking, treat him well, give him sugar and apples and carrots and be as kind as you can be.
“We would go to the track and normally, if a horse stops and doesn’t move, the exercise boy can hit it. I said ‘No, let it take its time.’ So he took his time after that and then we started running him and he finished second and I said ‘He’s probably fine.’ Then we brought him back again and he won.”
Before long, John Henry was winning in a series of victories. In 1980, he won six in a row, capped by a win in the G1 Hollywood Invitational. In 1981, he won five in a row, including the first of two G1 Santa Anita Handicap. After finishing fourth at the Hollywood Gold Cup, he won five of the next six races, including his first Arlington Million.
What other John Henry race does McAnally consider the best he’s ever run?
“There are so many, I can’t tell you,” McAnally said. “A million Arlingtons, I guess. The most important thing is this: Horses, when they’re five or six years old, like any athlete, they start to amputate. Basketball players, soccer players, they are. began to go downhill. However, John Henry took Horse of the Year at the age of nine.”
John Henry won a second ‘Big Cap’ in 1982 and a second Arlington Million in 1984 before retiring later that year. Amazingly, when he retired, he was in the middle of a four-race winning streak and had won six of his last seven races.
He was a four-year Eclipse winner and was named Horse of the Year in 1981 and 84. John Henry was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Most of the time, a trainer has a great horse and that’s why they call them the Horse of a Lifetime. But McAnally doesn’t have one, not two, but three Hall of Fame Museums, which is more proof of his training than he’s willing to admit. In 1988, a horse named Bayakoa came to him from Argentina.
“She was very fast and won the Breeders Cup for us,” he said. “Laffit rode her. He said it was the loveliest ride he’d ever ridden. A connection in South America told us there was a real nice girl here, so we went. buy her and she won everything.”
Bayakoa won five in a row in 1989, including Santa Margarita, Vanity and Milady, all Class 1 races at the time. After her loss at the Chula Vista at Del Mar, she went on to have five more straight wins including the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
Victory continued into 1990. Bayakoa won five of six races including her second Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She won the Eclipse Award for best old mare in both 1989 and 1990 and was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1998.
A few months after Bayakoa left the cage, another Argentinian hybrid named Paseana arrived at McAnally. From November 1991 to July 1992, she won seven in a row and would go on to give McAnally his third Breeders’ Cup Distaff win. She won the Eclipse Award for older mares in 1992 and 93 and was inducted into the Hall in 2001. He remembers her owners.
“Sid and Jenny Craig. They were very good customers, like the man who owned John Henry, Sam Ruben,” McAnally recalls. “Bad people (owners), they start telling you what to do. When that happens you get confused; they want to run them here, they want to run them there. Those are the things.” What they pay you, the coach, to do. They like to treat it like their own business, but I’m here seven days a week and I think I know what I’m doing.”
Who can argue with that? McAnally has been named a three-time Eclipse Award winner as coach of the year — 1981, 1991 and 1992. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside John Henry in 1990. At Del Mar , he was the track’s top coach in terms of wins in ten years and is now still fourth with 447 firsts, as well as third in bet wins with 77.
He always enjoys his summers at Del Mar and has the highest respect for the people who run the place.
“Joe Harper is one of the best,” McAnally said. “I’ve known Joe all my life. His mother has a horse. Did you see that stand? It was half the size when he came to work here. He built a new one and it’s great. Joe is one of them.”
McAnally has five horses in his stable in Del Mar this summer, four of which he owns. He can’t do that anymore, but back in the old grandstand days, McAnally would lead his horse to the beach.
“We used to take them out there, under the railroad tracks,” McAnally recalls. “They’ll lie down in the sand and roll. We’ll take them out into the water. They like it. They’ll relax. It’ll give them a chance to get out. Sometimes I feel sorry for the horses because them” stayed in their stall for 23 hours out of 24. When we took them to the beach, they had more time to go out and stand in the salt water. But those days are gone now. “
Once you’ve taken an interest in something during McAnally’s run, you’ll see a lot of changes, and his ability to adapt to those changes has contributed to his longevity. There was a time when the horses ran a prep race on Tuesday and returned to run in a stock race later that week. Not in McAnally’s cage.
“If you run horses every week, they won’t run well,” says McAnally. With three weeks, they will have the opportunity to build themselves, regain strength, eat better, exercise and relax. If you run them weekly, they won’t perform at their best. “
That’s how you synthesize over 70 years of horse training experience and reach the pinnacle of your sport. This week, he’s leaving more room in his trophy case for the Pincay Prize, which he’ll receive in the winners’ circle between races on Saturday. He is definitely someone who deserves it.
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