Big strides

Just now, Cool Storm is anything but. The two-year-old thoroughbred rages beneath his rider, a bundle of nerves wound tightly inside a fierce and beautiful half-ton frame. He shuffles from side to side, rears backward, moves any which way but forward. The horse grinds his teeth so hard, so loudly, it sounds as though he's turning boulders into gravel--you can feel the sound in your marrow.

"Aw, he's just nervous," says his trainer, who wears an unsure smile, dark jeans, and long blonde hair. "He's probably got ulcers too, but he'll be OK. This is a new track. He'll be fine once he gets out there and gets his legs under him."

But the horse's exercise rider--Michael Wayne, a 26-year veteran who once earned his thrills as a steeplechase jockey--is not so sure. His face gleams with late-morning sweat; he grimaces as he struggles just to control Cool Storm, his face tightening as the chaos unfolds beneath him. "You better come git this horse!" he hollers to the trainer, who turns and dashes toward the animal, grabbing it by the bridle until the storm subsides--enough, at least, to let the horse drag trainer and rider toward Lone Star Park's track for a morning workout.

This is the first time Michelle Mullins has seen the horse in action, having just purchased the thoroughbred days ago. She stands on a perch overlooking the track as Wayne takes Cool Storm around the oval; theirs is a particularly laborious journey until the horse finds his legs, and all of a sudden, an awkward canter turns into an emphatic gallop. "That's it, that's it," Mullins says, almost beneath her breath. "Now he's like, 'Oh, yeah, I know how to do this.'"

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Later, Wayne, who has been with Mullins for a year, will say that his boss has a superb touch--the ability to calm down any frantic horse, the talent for polishing rough gems till they shine like proud diamonds in the winner's circle. He will dole out a dozen compliments--"She uses her brain; she has a natural instinct for horses"--but none means more to him than these fond words: "She's real, I dunno, sensitive, but she's also real tough."

Wayne lights up a Marlboro after Cool Storm is back in his stall, taking a little vet-prescribed Tagamet to calm his irritated belly. "Michelle's got a good eye for young horses, and she's real talented," he continues. "I love workin' for her. I've got a lot of respect for her. I mean, for a young woman in this game, it's tough. There's not a lot of female trainers out there, and a lot of bad things are said, like 'Sleepin' with yer owner is the only way you're getting yer horses.' It's tough on her out here. She has to swallow a lot of things, the typical male-chauvinist type of things. This is a tough game. This is the toughest game played outdoors. She gets a lot of mental abuse, but she's tough."

Mullins, a mere 28, does not want to think of herself as a novelty. Instead, she defines herself simply by what she does, not by who she is: Michelle Mullins trains racehorses. She is a young professional with a remarkable record of putting thoroughbreds in the winner's circle; she is someone who makes a lot of money for the owners whose horses she conditions, including a man who already has a lot of money--George Strait. But don't be blinded by the celebrity attached to her name; Mullins doesn't need a country singer's ID to get her through the front door.

Right now, Mullins is not a woman to be stared at or treated as fragile. But sometimes it's hard to see past the blonde hair and the easy smile: The male track publicist who arranged an interview with her says, "She's a looker," innocent words that somehow land like a slap to the side of the face. Surely he wouldn't have said these things of a man. No, of course not.

Mullins has heard what they say about her behind her back--horse racing is a small world, and whispers echo loudly inside the barn--and she pays it no mind. "Let them say what they want, but I work hard, and I win," she says, because that's all that is important to her. Everything else is background noise, and it will not stand in her way of fulfilling a lifelong passion to be around horses and sculpt them into winners.

"You've got to realize, I've got a very famous client, and no matter who you are, anyone's gonna get that," she says. "But all you can do is go out there and do your very best, and in my case, I did twice as good as average for a trainer, and do I think I have to do that? Yeah, I do think I have to do twice as good. I make sure every race counts."  

Her record last year at Lone Star Park's inaugural meet was an impressive one: She put 11 starters on the track, and four of them, including the 2-year-old Berry Blvd., came in first--an outstanding winning percentage. Two more horses finished second, and another came in third; she won $51,560 in purses at Lone Star Park, enough to take home rookie-of-the-meet honors. Last year overall, she started 30 races for Strait and won eight, with four seconds and seven thirds.

This year, she's set to saddle her first starter at Lone Star on April 18 and will have more horses under her direction than ever before. Strait has sent four thoroughbreds, including Cool Storm and an astonishing 2-year-old named Time for a Change that looks as though it's carved from oak; even Mullins is taken aback by his size and beauty. And her client list has grown to include the Dallas-based Silverado Racing, which is owned by local businessmen Greg England and Derek Massey. They've sent Mullins a handful of 2-year-olds. "And I picked them myself, so I know they're good ones," she says.

Despite her ability to get in the money with most of her horses, Mullins didn't rank among Lone Star Park's leading trainers in 1997, mostly because she didn't have enough starters. She's not even mentioned in Lone Star Park's current media guide, despite having only two fewer wins than Thomas Bohannon, who won six races in 51 starts.

"I had a superior year last year, and I did get some attention because of it," she says. "As far as it being a male-dominated sport, there were a lot of people who came before me who laid the groundwork. When I first started out on the backside, women had just gotten to where they were accepted. You gotta realize, in the early '70s, they were still throwin' women off the backside, not wantin' them to ride races, so it's come a long way. The toughest thing about it is getting the finances to buy the horses. A guy with a lot of money is more likely to give it to a man than he is a young woman. That's what I've found. It's kind of a confidence factor. But I love horses, and I don't worry about it. This is what I do."

Mullins' decision to pursue a horse-related career isn't surprising when you consider her birthplace: Lexington, Kentucky, home of the fabled Keeneland Race Course. It's like being born in Detroit and deciding you want to work for General Motors. Initially, her parents weren't supportive: Her father, an executive at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and her mother, a politician's secretary, frowned upon the expense.

She began riding when she was five and living in Arlington, where her family had moved after one of her father's annual promotions and transfers. It was a natural impulse for her, one that far transcended that of a little girl wanting a pony. "I don't know why I was drawn to horses," she says now. "I was always attracted to them. I can't explain it."

She would ride horses all throughout her childhood (she eventually moved back to Kentucky), and when she was 14, she got a job teaching horseback-riding for the city. "I needed something to support my horse habit," she says, grinning. She also showed horses, but didn't get near racehorses until college at the University of Kentucky--where she was a biology major on her way toward becoming a vet. She took up exercise riding when she heard you could make money galloping racehorses for trainers. Eventually, she began buying and selling horses--what's called working bloodstock.

That experience taught her about pedigrees, and when she was 20, she took out a loan (which her father co-signed) and bought two thoroughbred foals and resold them as yearlings. She made a nice pile of cash and figured that was her destiny.

"I never even wanted to train," she says now, "even when I was galloping horses and being around them, because I didn't see any opportunity for women at the time. Ten years ago, there was, like, one woman who became a trainer because her husband was a trainer and he had died. I thought even if I had my license, I was never gonna get any good horses. All the other girl trainers I knew didn't have any quality horses."

She got her first shot at training three years ago when, during an auction in San Antonio, she and Strait crossed paths while bidding for the same horse. True story: She outbid him, then offered him partners; he accepted, she told him she'd train the horse till he found someone else, he never did, and that was that.  

Her first season as Strait's trainer, in 1995, was fraught with disaster. Of the six horses she had in her stable, most would never see a track. "Anything that could go wrong did go wrong," she recalls. The following year proved considerably better, when she started 10 races and won three. She had better horses and more patience; she learned never to start a horse that isn't 100 percent fit, ready to win the first time it hits the dirt. Her record last year proved that.

Now, Mullins is a young woman succeeding in a world full of middle-aged men. She travels from Texas to California to Louisiana to Kentucky with her three workers; they're like Gypsies moving from one track to another, looking to get rich off the backs of horses. It's a hell of a way to make a living, depending upon an animal to put food on the plate and a new roof over your head every four months; the horse life plays hell with your personal life.

But Mullins embraces it all--the solitary lifestyle, the austerity, the whispers, the veiled sexism, the whole lot of it. She's no pioneer, simply a woman who began riding horses when she was five and never wanted to get off.

"The racing world is a very exciting world," she says. "It's got a lot of glamour to it. It's not easy to do, and that's what makes it challenging, and there was a potential there to make money at it. When you can make money doing what you love, what more can you want? So far, everything's right on track."

Then she pauses, and what comes out her mouth next sounds suspiciously like the words of a woman with a cause: "Obviously, no woman has won the Kentucky Derby yet, and that's the biggest goal I've got. If you aim for the stars, you might miss and hit the moon."

In the end, Mullins has only one cause: winning.

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