Horsereporter Speaks with Top US Trainer Lynn Ashby

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Lynn Ashby after Santa Anita win – front row blue jacket. Lara Sawaya on left and Deb Mihaloff on right in yellow.

1 May 2016, USA ~ Part One of the Two Part series with Lynn Ashby – Training for Top Performance

Lynn Ashby has been a top horse trainer in the US for many years. Her US Darley Award for Best Trainer for 2015 followed her win in the same category in 2014. She has had a total of eight Darley Top Trainer Awards (2002, 2001, 1999, 1998, 1995, 1994) in the 29 year history of the awards honoring the best of Arabian racing.

The Hollywood-based Darley Awards on 1 April 2016, were followed the next day with a $100,000 Stakes race at Santa Anita, and Ashby topped her weekend with the win in this Grade 1 race with the Cre-Run 6-year-old, Thess Is Awesome.

“Its a dream,” said Ashby.
Ashby treats every win and every success is as if it is the first time, although she has often been in the winner’s circle on racetracks all over the United States.

Ashby with Thess Is Awesome, jockey Travis Wales

Ashby with Thess Is Awesome, jockey Travis Wales

Ashby’s story

Lynn Ashby applied for her first training license in 1983 at Yakima Meadows in Washington State after spending time as an assistant trainer under Major Richard Hale. “The first year our horses ran under his name,” she said. “In 1984 I passed the test.”

Ashby had a background in endurance horses and she trained from her farm in Trout Lake, Washington, which backed up to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest [1.32 million acres – 5300 km2]. “This was our base. We started the Trout Lake endurance ride and laid out those trails which are still used for endurance.”

“I took what I knew about endurance and Major Hale taught me how to put a fast twitch muscle on the horses with wind sprints and I applied it to racing. I also worked all my race horses in endurance saddles. It is more weight but it dissipates the weight over the shoulders which is easier on the horse … and I still do this. The gallop saddle is over the shoulders and makes them sore. We start Thoroughbreds with a heavier saddle as well. It makes them develop quicker with better balance and movement in the rear end. Once we start speed work we back off the heavier saddle.”

“In Washington, we won races,” Ashby continued. “In the winter we’d take our snowmobile into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and we’d sprint the horses up the hills in the snow. We’d go down and stand them in the White Salmon River and get their legs tight. I always had fit horses when the season started.”

Although they were doing well on the West Coast, the good racing money was in the East. Husband Mark, a fabrication engineer, quit his job and they moved to the East Coast in 1986. “We moved to Delaware and I stabled the horses at the race track there, but it was humid and I over trained,” said Ashby.

“This business keeps you humble. We sold what we could in Delaware and we limped back home. It took me 1½ years but I put another stable together and I told Mark that I wanted to try it one more time. Mark had been working on logging trucks and we still had our own ranch at Trout Lake.”

“This time we sold the farm in Washington and bought a farm in Delaware. Mark rebuilt the racetrack on the farm.”

And this time with new determination, the wins just kept rolling in and with it, new clients. “We filled so many great races and got so many involved in racing,”said Ashby. “It was fun. We started with endurance horses and made them race horses. Now we are going the other way and taking our retired race horses and putting them into endurance.”

And into the future

Lynn Ashby 2016

Lynn Ashby 2016

For the future, the Ashbys think about retiring as she and Mark would like to travel. The plan is to ease into retirement but the Ashbys have two years to go on a three-year management contract for the 500-acre Delaware horse farm owned by the late Bayard Sharp. The farm includes a race track where they train about 60 horses. Mark builds all of the metal equipment and also is facilities manager taking care of all of the buildings on the farm.

The retirement scheme may have come into focus with the life-challenging news in April of 2014 that Lynn had invasive breast cancer. She never let this blip on the screen stop her. “I got all the information I could find, educated myself, then organized a plan to handle the problem,” she explained. There followed an intense year of surgery and chemotherapy and a good deal of faith. With excellent medical care and the great support of staff and friends, Lynn is now cancer free.

On the Sharp farm, Lynn starts horses for many of the top trainers. “We work with about 70 Thoroughbreds a year, and about 20 Arabians,” she said. “I train for Graham Motion, Michael Matz, Chick Zacney. We prep the horses. We leave them out in the pasture and they are not coddled. Our win percentage is amazing.“

Two assistant trainers help Lynn – Aimee Hall, who is in charge of the Thoroughbreds, and Kirsten Swan for the Arabians. It is Kirsten that Lynn is grooming to take over the farm duties when they do decide to leave. “That girl can do it all,” said Lynn. “She is amazing. She rides, she flies with the horses. She will make an excellent trainer.”

“I’m so blessed,” continued Lynn. “I have employees that have worked with us for over 30 years … with the same passion and love for the horses. It’s all of us.”

The Ashbys want to continue to mentor as they see young blood as the future of Arabian racing.

“It’s time for the younger generation to step up,” said Lynn. Recent successes include top endurance riders Heather and Jeremy Reynolds who have bought Arabians for flat racing, and the relationship with Texas owners Jon and Krista Henningsgard who recently accepted the 2015 Darley Award for Older Mare for their racing Arabian, DC Willeys Song.

“Will we always be involved? Lynn ask rhetorically. “Heck yes! It’s a passion.”

Ashby receives Darley Award for Best Trainer 2016

Ashby receives Darley Award for Best Trainer 2016

Thess Is Awesome owner, Deborah Mihaloff, has worked with the Ashbys for 25 years.

“We need the next generation of Trainers and Breeders,” said Mihaloff. “Age is playing a role on our current trainers so now they have to pass the baton to the next generation. We also need to start giving some of our horses to Thoroughbred trainers and educate them about the Arabian Horse.”

“Lynn has been training for us for 25 years this summer. I can only say it is like a marriage. We don’t always agree but we compromise when we have differences. Over the years I have learned to stop trying to be the trainer.”

“I know Lynn loves my horses as much as I do and I know she has their best interests at heart. We have given her our best and she has taken them and elevated their abilities to the highest levels. When they have finished racing they are able to go onto other disciplines and make wonderful horses for others, and that is the key to our After Racing horses. We won’t run them into the ground. We want others to enjoy this fabulous breed.”

* Look for Part Two coming 3 May – How to Win Like a Top Trainer with Lynn Ashby and Karin van den Bos – Two International Trainers Working Together for Top Performance 

By Pamela Burton