As a young girl, Aldana Gonzalez never minded getting up at 5 a.m. to tag along after her aunt Blanca, a Thoroughbred jockey at the Palermo Racetrack in their hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
From the time she was 8, Aldana was entranced by the pleasing aroma of alfalfa and oats being slowly cooked, the ritual of sipping Maté herbal tea at the barn and Blanca’s skill at coaxing 100-percent effort from her mounts.
But the best part of visiting the track was unlocking the mystery of how trainers and jockeys communicate with their horses. Aldana quickly learned that most horses are willing to give their best in exchange for security, devoted care and firm but patient instruction.
“I believe you have to train their mind first, then their body,” said Gonzalez, now in her second season at Tampa Bay Downs training a string of about 15 horses for Canadian homebuilder Bruno Schickedanz.
“If they are good mentally, they will be open to whatever you want to teach them,” Gonzalez said. “But if their mind is not good and they have no confidence or they’re afraid, they won’t give you what you want.”
Through Feb. 1, Gonzalez, 36, had saddled eight winners (six for Schickedanz) from 31 starters. The bulk of her stable consists of claiming horses, but Gonzalez believes they all possess a wellspring of untapped potential she is determined to reveal.
“If you pay attention, they’ll tell you a lot,” said Gonzalez, who studied psychology for three years at the University of Buenos Aires. “When I get a horse, I try to see how confident it is. I read their body language, figure out what they like and don’t like, and find out about their attitude.
“I can learn what they feel just by watching,” she added.
Gonzalez also uses her psychology background when dealing with people, from her stable help to exercise riders to jockeys to rival trainers, even members of the public who approach her for a piece of information.
“A lot of it is the same with people as it is with horses. No matter how someone may seem, everyone is dealing with certain circumstances – maybe money-related, health-related or with a relationship,” Gonzalez said. “We all wake up every day and try to make the best out of our circumstances, but everyone is on a certain path in life that most people don’t see.
“People today deal with a lot of stress, and a lot go through life without finding that other person who can help them. That is why I try not to judge people by the way they act. I try to learn why they are that way.
“For me, I know I am very lucky to be doing what I love to do, which is training racehorses.”
PASSION FOR THE SPORT
Gonzalez’s passion is visible every day to those closest to her, including jockey Scott Spieth. The two have been in a relationship for three years, and Gonzalez calls Spieth her “soul mate.”
“We have very good communication,” Gonzalez said. “He is my best friend, and we think that together we can be successful in this business.”
Spieth, who has ridden more than 4,400 winners and rides most of Gonzalez’s horses, says her horsemanship skills and patience enable her to send out runners that are ready to compete to the best of their ability. “She is very adamant about how she trains. She wants her horses to go a certain way and respond correctly in a race, so you rarely see one that is ill-mannered,” he said.
“Nobody can make a horse be more than it is, but she has a skill for making them the best that they are, and that’s what her goal is. I was teasing her the other morning when she was going through all their blankets after the feeding. I said ‘Can you imagine if you had kids?’ ” Spieth said. “Because these are her kids and that’s how she treats them. She takes a lot of pride in what she does.”
Schickedanz, the CEO of B.G. Schickedanz Homes, Inc., manages a widespread racing operation focused on results. He has been a major force in horse racing north of the border for almost 30 years. He owns Thoroughbred farms in Canada and Ocala and has been the leading owner in races won in Canada 10 times.
His best horses over the years include Wake At Noon, Canada’s Horse of the Year, Champion Sprinter and Champion Older Horse in 2002; Scotzanna, Canadian Champion 3-Year-Old Filly and Champion Sprinter in 1995; and One Way Love, Champion Sprinter and Champion Older Horse in 2000.
Schickedanz hired Gonzalez to run his Oldsmar operation after moving another trainer, Yvon Belsoeur, north to handle his racing stable in New York and New Jersey. At the time, Gonzalez was working as an assistant under Joan Scott.
“Yvon had told me how hard she worked and how she paid a lot of attention to detail,” Schickedanz said. “I knew after I talked to Aldana that she meant everything she said and that it came from her heart, and we decided to come together.”
Gonzalez serves as Schickedanz’s eyes and ears at Tampa Bay Downs, often suggesting horses to claim. For the most part, they seem to be on the same wavelength.
“I believe that if a trainer gives my horses everything they’ve got, the horses are going to give them everything they have in return, and Aldana is like that,” Schickedanz said. “I also encourage my trainers to be independent thinkers. She is a smart woman who is very dedicated and wants to succeed.”
HANDS-ON APPROACH TO TRAINING
Gonzalez is a portrait of efficiency and grace in the mornings, escorting each of her workers to the track atop her pony, the retired 7-year-old Thoroughbred Shadow Wood.
“The pony is like my right hand,” she said. “I like to be in contact with my horses when they’re training. I like to be around them and move around them. Sometimes I’ll go on the left side of them, sometimes on the right.
“Sometimes I’ll work horses in company (with other workers), but some horses get a little aggressive when they have another racehorse next to them,” Gonzalez said. “So with the pony, I think I have a little more control of how I want the horse to go on the track.”
While her morning schedule is precise to allow her to work five or six a day, Gonzalez is not in a rush to get an individual horse to the races. She wants each horse to understand the process, building their confidence for the task they will ultimately be asked to perform.
“I want to get my horses to trust me that everything is going to be fine, that they can do what we ask and nothing bad is going to happen,” she said.
“A lot of times in a race, you’ll see a horse go to the front, but they’re thinking ‘Oh my God, the wolf is coming and it’s going to grab me.’ They run faster and faster for a while, but because they worry, they cannot perform to the top of their ability.
“To me, horses have to be trained step by step for them to understand what you want from them.”
Gonzalez’s hands-on approach extends to clipping each of her horses, taking as much time as she needs with horses that are skittish or apprehensive about the extra attention.
“Total Accounting (a 4-year-old gelding) was afraid of everything, and it took me about twice as long to clip him as it does with most horses in my barn,” she said. “When I have those kind of issues, I like to keep going, because when you come back later and do it, it (the fear) is probably going to be worse.
“I want them to get used to it, so I go slow and most of the time everything works out perfect. I like to clip the whole body – the belly, the legs, the mane, everything.
“It took me about an hour-and-a-half to finish Total Accounting. He still wasn’t liking it a lot toward the end, but I could tell he was thinking ‘OK, I still worry, but you’re not going to hurt me.’
“I enjoy it because it’s a way for me to get to know my horses’ bodies, find certain parts that might hurt and at the same time, they get used to being handled a different way,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez came to the United States in 2002. Her first job was as a hotwalker for Aunt Blanca, who had become a trainer, but Aldana’s driving ambition was to start her own stable. She worked on improving her English-language skills by watching cartoons at night.
Within a year, she went to work for trainer Tom Skiffington, who saw enough potential to let her gallop horses and run his shedrow at the Palm Beach Downs training center in south Florida. Skiffington sent Gonzalez to Monmouth Park in New Jersey in the summer of 2006 with a handful of horses, and while there she claimed a filly named Soap Sudz for $7,500 for herself and Aunt Blanca.
Soap Sudz won in her third start back at the Meadowlands, Gonzalez’s first official victory as a trainer.
During the summer of 2005, while still employed by Skiffington, Gonzalez had started a part-time job as a veterinarian’s assistant at Monmouth. Several months later, she joined Tampa Bay Downs veterinarian David Skand (now a state employee at the track) on his morning rounds inspecting that day’s runners. She spent the next two meetings absorbing Skand’s vast expertise.
“That was one of the biggest helps I’ve had,” Gonzalez said. “I learned a lot from him about understanding a horse’s body, their conformation, soundness and medications. I also got to see what a lot of other trainers did to get a horse ready.”
FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE
After two years working with Skand, Gonzalez was itching to go out on her own permanently so bad, she could barely stand it. Then, life delivered a swift kick to the midsection when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Mirta Gonzalez underwent a regimen of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments, while Aldana – who has two grown brothers and a teenage sister – reassessed her own ambitions against her mother’s struggle to survive.
“A lot of times people work, work, work, and they never stop for a minute to say ‘Is this really making me happy?’ I had to realize what the most important things are,” she said. “To me, family should be the most important thing for everybody.
“My mother was always a healthy woman who didn’t smoke or drink, so you wouldn’t think something like that would ever happen. It was something that was in my head every day – is she going to be OK?” Gonzalez recalled.
Her mother encouraged Gonzalez to keep moving forward with her career, but it was often next-to-impossible to maintain a strong focus. Although she was unable to return to Argentina for several months, she kept in constant contact with her family via telephone.
“Whenever I talked to her, she was always in really good spirits,” Gonzalez said. “My mother and father have always wanted the best for their children and she kept telling me, ‘Don’t stop doing what you want to do.’ ”
Mirta Gonzalez’s recovery took five years, but her cancer is now in remission. Mirta’s sister is also a breast cancer survivor, and because of that family history, Aldana has undergone yearly mammograms every year since her mother was diagnosed.
“If (breast cancer) is something that is genetic in my family, I need to stay on top of it. I think it is something every woman should do,” Gonzalez said.
In 2007, Gonzalez accepted a job as an assistant under Joan Scott and stayed with the successful Grade I-winning conditioner for five years. It was just the seasoning she needed to have a fighting chance to be successful on her own.
“I learned so much from (Scott) in all different aspects,” Gonzalez said. “She taught me how to manage the morning training and how it is something you have to be constant with. You can’t be doing things a certain way one day and change things the next. Organization is very important.
“I also learned from her that I could do whatever I wanted to do if I stayed focused, and not to worry about what other people think or say,” Gonzalez added.
Already this season, Gonzalez has had above-average success claiming horses and getting them to win their first or second race back. Included in that group is the now 6-year-old mare Moonshine Promise, which she claimed for herself for $8,000 from a runner-up effort Dec. 17.
Moonshine Promise won her next race on Jan. 14 at the $12,500 claiming level under jockey Ronnie Allen, Jr., paying $19.60 to win. “I think getting horses I claimed to win shows my program is working,” she said.
Gonzalez strives to keep improving her stable and climb the ladder of training success, but the ordeal of nearly losing her mother has caused her to concentrate on the big picture. She and Spieth try to make the most of their private time away from the track, and she fits in fun pursuits such as watching movies, outdoor activities and reading.
“I always feel a little bit of pressure to win, like everyone else in this sport,” Gonzalez said. “But I’m usually confident that I know what my horses are going to give me in a race, unless something goes wrong.
“There are some things I have no control over, so I just try to do my best to the point where the outcome is not really up to me. Once I give a leg up to the rider, that’s it for me.”
Until she goes to the winner’s circle or to the drawing board, eager to build back confidence for the next effort.