Monte Thomas, the Zerillo's Italian Grill Trainer of the Month, enjoys success with his Ups and Downs Racing operation.
The name of the Thomas family homestead in Citra, Fla. – Ups & Downs Farm – is relatable to anyone who has spent a huge chunk of their life racing Thoroughbreds.
Monte Thomas, the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month, doesn’t linger on the valleys. But he believes anyone seeking long-term success in the sport had better have a game plan they can stick to when the inevitable losing streaks take place.
“You can look through your trainers list and every year, there are outfits that consistently win races, and several that just win a race here or there,” said the 70-year-old native of Woodstown, N.J., who has 10 winners from 41 starters during the 2014-2015 Tampa Bay Downs meeting.
“I think part of it is setting up your operation to be successful. You have to have a lot of luck, but you have to have an operation that works,” Thomas said. “You look at trainers like (Gerald) Bennett and (Jamie) Ness – they have systems in place that work for them. (Successful trainers) don’t all train the same, and it doesn’t matter. As long as you are consistent with whatever your plan is, it can work if you stay with it.”
Thomas employs a system for success that is straightforward, like the man himself. Start by surrounding yourself with good, hard-working people. Never lose sight of the fact that each horse progresses at a different rate. And keep your (and your owners’) expectations realistic.
“We don’t have fancy mares, and most of the horses we raise are not going to be stakes horses,” said Thomas. “I like to try to put them where they will be competitive, because it helps their courage not to get beaten badly the first few times they run. And if you aren’t winning, I don’t see how you can do this very long without going out of business.”
Thomas used to ship all his horses to the track, but has kept 10 stalls at Tampa Bay Downs the last three years, while raising his young horses at Ups & Downs with his wife, Cathy, and their daughter, Erica. Their days are spent managing the 20 or so horses they have in training, along with three stallions, a few broodmares and clients’ horses being freshened for a return to competition.
“We do a lot of it ourselves,” Thomas said. “We rent a dozen stalls four or five miles from the house at Southern Breeze Training Center. They have a nice five-furlong track, and that is where we start the babies and get much of their gate work done. Erica goes there every morning, and Cathy goes there on work days when I’m not there. I bring them to the track a couple of days ahead of a race, and it doesn’t take too long to get them ready to run.”
Cathy and Erica also teach retired Thoroughbreds to transition to careers as dressage horses. “Cathy is a very talented rider, and when we lived in Arcadia (Florida), we had a lot of show horses,” Thomas said. “And I’ve always shod horses, but not too many now. We’ve done a little bit of everything, as far as horses are concerned.”
From 1986-2001, the Thomases stepped back from the racing game while Cathy pursued her show-horse interests and Monte operated a thriving blacksmith operation. They also raised and sold exotic animals, such as rheas (relatives of the ostrich), wallabies (members of the kangaroo clan) and various types of parrots and birds of all descriptions.
Since returning to racing, the family has kept their numbers constant, usually making between 100-150 starts a year.
The veteran conditioner’s reputation for winning early with horses with less-than-glittering pedigrees has been reaffirmed recently with first-out winners Chief Envoy, a 3-year-old homebred gelding, and 3-year-old filly Greatest Lisa. The family’s homebred 3-year-old colt Harryhee also won as a first-time starter in January, paying $95.
“When I bring (unraced horses) to the track, they spring out galloping from the gate the first time, and it’s not very long with most of them until they get their gate card and are ready to race,” he said. “We also have a gate at the house they walk through going out and coming back when we start breaking them, so when they get to the track the gate is not that big a deal.”
The Thomases stand three stallions, including their own Hello Broadway; Mount McKinley, owned by Tampa Bay Downs President-Treasurer Stella F. Thayer; and Forty Grams, who is property of a partnership. Hello Broadway, who finished second in the Grade II Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream in 2009, is the sire of a newly born colt out of Becausei’mworthit, a 7-year-old Thomas broodmare who won the 2012 Cool Air Stakes at Calder in Miami.
Hello Broadway is also the sire of the family’s 4-year-old filly U and Tequila, who has won three races in a row at the current Oldsmar meeting, and their 4-year-old filly My Sweet Dove, who won the 2013 Sandpiper Stakes here as a 2-year-old. My Sweet Dove won on the turf for the first time April 3 in an impressive five-furlong effort.
“This is the best she has ever been physically,” Thomas said of My Sweet Dove. “She had been having lingering foot problems, and my blacksmith got her in glue-on shoes that seemed to work. Cathy and Erica had her leading up to that race, and the way she was blowing out and coming back, they said she has never been that happy and that strong, and she ran just like that.”
Another key cog in the Ups and Downs Racing operation is Tampa Bay Downs assistant Pedro Alarcon. “He takes care of everything when I’m not here,” Thomas said. “He is very dependable and hard-working, and he knows our system, and that’s what it takes.”