California Thoroughbred Breeders Association article on Mike Wilson – Jan 2010
Focus on the Future: Mike Wilson
It would have been all too easy for twenty-four-year-old Mike Wilson to ignore the call to his cell phone while bent over a horse’s leg early one morning. He was busy, in the midst of working as an assistant for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and traveling the country with horses such as Grade 1 winner Gabby’s Golden Gal. But the unknown number beckoned, and Wilson answered, beginning his adventure with Darley Flying Start.
The son of veterinarian and UC Davis professor Dr. David Wilson, Mike Wilson originally opted to study zoology. “My dad has always been a racing fan, but I was late to get involved.” Wilson admits.
One summer, a friend invited Wilson to attend a program hosted by Carolyn Pfanner, a CTBA member since 1968. “It is important for kids to get a realistic view of working with horses,” Pfanner said, “so they can make a realistic choice about helping animals. Mine is a hands on program working with raw horses.” While under the tutelage of Pfanner, Wilson learned the basics of horse handling and care. “He started showing up an hour before everyone else, he was so keen for it.”
Wilson entered college at Loyola Marymount University and picked up a job hot walking for trainer Martin Jones. After viewing the DVD “On the Muscle,” a documentary of life in trainer Richard Mandella’s barn, Wilson decided he wanted to learn from one of the best. “Mandella took a chance on some young kid and gave me a job during Del Mar as his foreman,” Wilson explained.
Leaping into the horse industry, Wilson transferred to UC Davis and earned a bachelor’s degree in Equine Animal Science. His social life suffered as Wilson took on the related internships the college offered, such as tending the school’s stallions and working in the farrier shop. “It never occurred to me how much it was impacting me,” Wilson said, “because it never felt like a sacrifice.”
After graduating, Wilson returned to Mandella before moving to the barn of Doug O’Neil. “It was amazing to work for Doug,” Wilson remembers fondly. “He told me to take out my assistant trainer’s license and let me saddle horses for races and run with my ideas to help improve a horse’s performance.”
After going through a grueling application and interview process for the coveted Darley Flying Start program, Wilson was accepted while working for Baffert. The program, which sends twelve students to Europe, Australia, Dubai and Kentucky for an intensive two-year course, is the desire of nearly all college-age fans of the industry. “It was nerve wracking when I arrived (in Ireland to start the course) because it’s such a reality check,” Wilson explained. “I knew the other students would be on par, but my roommate is from India and was an assistant to the top trainer there. It is humbling to meet everyone.”
Course work has included inspecting yearlings with top European trainer Mark Johnston and spending hours at the Darley Jonabell Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. Stallions that reside at the farm include Medaglia D’oro, Street Cry, Street Sense and Bernardini. The students inspected training grounds at the Curragh in Ireland, including uphill grass and polytrack courses as well as woodchip gallops. “The program tests you,” Wilson warned, “but you couldn’t be having any more fun while doing it.”
So far, Wilson’s favorite opportunity has been the chance to see the 2009 Cartier Horse of the Year Sea the Stars. “I’ve been to the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup, but the Prix de’l Arc de Triomphe was a racing festival like nothing else I’ve ever experienced before.”
In three or four years, Wilson hopes to return to California and eventually become a trainer. He is armed with knowledge on how to improve racing in the United States, and agrees with efforts to reach younger crowds, such as Churchill Downs’ move to Friday night racing.
“In Europe, they are still horse racing fans. The national newspaper has three pages of coverage in it from races around the country,” Wilson notes. “We can’t sweep problems under the rug anymore, the industry has to come together.”