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.'"

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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky