The daughter of a track manager and an uphill racing coach, Helen Pitts, a native of Maryland, was destined for a career on the track. After working for several climbing coaches, she moved to Kentucky to work for Kenny McPeek. When McPeek left the coaching job in 2005, the Pitts took over and had their first winner that same day. Over the years, she has been a winner’s finalist with many unforgettable horse races, including a Hall of Fame champion. Curlin and her all-time favorite, MGISW Einstein (Brz).
KP: How did you get into horse racing for the first time?
HP: My father is the manager at the racecourse. He worked in Maryland for 20 years and was there when Kent Desormeaux, Edgar Prado and those guys were there. My mother trained bell tower horses, so this was in my blood and I didn’t have much of a choice. I grew up with fox hunters and horse clubs and raced a lot. Dad was always trying to stop me from going to the racecourse, but I rode over the tower and ended up working for several bell-racing coaches. [Hall of Fame steeplechase trainer] Jack Fisher helped me get started and then I also went to Frannie Campitelli at Pimlico.
Then I started working for Kenny McPeek. He asked me to move to Kentucky. I learned a lot from Kenny and around really good horses. I gallop of Take Charge Lady and Harlan’s Holiday. When Kenny retired to make blood, I was fortunate to carry on from there.
On July 1, 2005, the first horse I raced actually won the Churchill Downs. Her name is Cat Quatorze (Louis Quatorze) and I will never forget it. Then I won my first class I that fall with a little chat called Sweet Talker (Stormin Fever) at Keeneland during the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup S.
KP: How has your climbing background helped you as a flatbed trainer?
HP: In fact, they are very much intertwined. Obstacle racers are a lot more fitness-focused because they have to go a lot further. In terms of riding, I think I have benefited from it and it has brought me a world of good.
A lot of tower horses are older flat horses. My mother is a wonderful herdsman and she will take the flat horses that can take a year off the tendons and she will bring them back to perfect health and they will win countless races because Grandma.
KP: Where is your stable headquarters now?
HP: Kentucky is a pretty interesting home for us. Basically, Churchill Downs is our base year-round, and I’m at Highpointe Training Center just outside of Louisville in the winter. I give a lot of horses a winter break to let them cool down a bit so they’re ready to roll in the spring.
KP: How many horses do you normally have in your stable?
HP: I’d say we usually have about 10 babies, but that number can go up and down, especially in the spring when we have babies. I think back to the days when I had 40 horses in the stable, but the game has changed a lot since then. It’s hard to find help these days and honestly, 10 is a good number for the stage I’m in.
I have good owners and a lot of my owners breed on their own, so we can spend time with them and I’m not pressured to have a baby in May. I train for an amazing person, some of whom have been with me since I started.
KP: Who would you say has been your biggest mentor throughout your career?
HP: That is a difficult question. Kenny gave me the opportunity to get where I am today. He introduced me to so many people and put me in a great position. I have learned a lot from him.
Looking back, that was also my mother. She’s a great horsewoman and is now 87 years old, but she’s actually in Kentucky this week selling babies at the sale. She still has a farm in Maryland and raises newborn babies. She is a very good horsewoman and has given me the work ethic that has brought me to where I am today.
This is a difficult question because there is also Jack Fisher and Frannie Campitelli. Both have had a great influence on my career. I think everyone gets you somewhere.
KP: Which horse has had the most influence on your career?
HP:. Oh, that would have to be my boy Einstein (Brz) (Spend a Buck). He’s my best friend and I’ve had him my whole career. He took me all over the country. He is the coolest horse and has a lot of personality. I usually get in the car in the afternoon and he will start screaming when he sees me.
Then there’s also Curlin, who put me on the map. I only had to run him once before they sold him, but I spent time with him and got him right. He made it all worthwhile for that start and now I can say I’m in training. Curlin. He helped me make my name.
What do they say? Good horses will make you look good.
KP: What do you believe makes your stables unique?
HP: My staff is great. I have a couple that have worked for me since I started.
We are very small and practice. If I don’t get over them on my own, I’m on horseback with them. We give them a lot of TLC and for me it doesn’t matter what kind of horse they are because they are all treated the right way and they are all special to me. They all think they are big horses in my eyes.
KP: Do you think super coaches are bad for the sport?
HP: I’m not going to sit here and say they’re not good for the sport. I give them all a lot of credit. I think that’s what some owners want these days. They want people with high rates. If you list the names of today’s super trainers, they are very good riders and very good trainers. With the way the game is and the way they seek help these days, what they do is hard.
I think there is another aspect when it comes to a large outfit as opposed to a smaller outfit. There are pluses and minuses to it.
KP: What do you like most about your job?
HP: I just love horses. I love seeing them come along and grow and I love the competitiveness of it all. I currently have a Zawish name (Mshawish) who is two for two. This filth just thinks she’s King Kong. She loves the game and loves to exercise. I actually trained his mother, who was owned by the same client and was their first racehorse.
KP: What is the most frustrating aspect of your job?
HP: There are different approaches you can take with this. Do I love consistency in our sport and having everyone on the same page? Sure. I just hope our sport keeps getting better and better, but it looks like it’s on the right track.
It’s hard between finding help and keeping your system up and running, which I’ve found is easier now given the size I’m at. Even if I work for Kenny, you’ll walk in some days and find out you’re missing a groom, so you’re down four and galloping seven. It’s part of it and you have to be able to roll with it.
This game is hard. You can be on the absolute biggest peak in the world and it will jerk you down in a minute. I will never forget the morning after I won my first Class I, I was herding horses and broke a 2 year old. That will startle your heart and you must be able to afford to get over it. A lot of it is just ups and downs. It’s definitely a game of highs and lows.
KP: Your team roster race that you hope to win someday?
HP: Obviously everyone’s goal is to go to the Kentucky Derby or the Oaks. I ran in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic with Einstein in 2009. That’s the year Zenyatta won it. Einstein actually won the GI Santa Anita H. that year and I was the first woman to win that race, it was amazing and I feel like a great feat.
I’d love to win the Breeders’ Cup or, of course, the Oaks or the Derby – something of such prestige.