x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Dubai World Cup: Playing second fiddle to a trainer not a thankless job

There are examples of assistant trainers who have made it to the top of a horse racing operation, writes Geoffrey Riddle.

Seth Benzel, the American trainer who guided Dux Scholar, right, to two Dubai World Cup Carnival starts, made his way up the ladder from being an exercise rider to assistant trainer to trainer. Christopher Pike / The National
Seth Benzel, the American trainer who guided Dux Scholar, right, to two Dubai World Cup Carnival starts, made his way up the ladder from being an exercise rider to assistant trainer to trainer. Christopher Pike / The National

DUBAI // In the film Cyrano De Bergerac, the actor Gerard Depardieu laments in character the futility of his career.

"My life's work has been to prompt others and be forgotten," he says. "While I was below in the shadows, others climbed up to kiss the sweet rose."

From afar it may seem that the life of the assistant trainer goes similarly unrewarded.

Even though you may hear the winning trainer mention all of the hard work put in by his stable staff you are unlikely to see any of them on the podium in the limelight.

Yet for many the work put in as a No 2 often leads to finally becoming top dog, and for some their talent can take them all the way.

Mahmoud Al Zarooni, who saddles 10 runners on World Cup night on Saturday, including two in the US$10 million (Dh36,730m) Dubai World Cup, trained under Rod Simpson and Ali Rashid Al Raihe before he was handed the dream role as a Godolphin trainer.

Marco Botti, who learned his craft under Luca Cumani, also has Planteur entered in the world's most valuable horse race, while Graham Motion, who is responsible for Animal Kingdom in the feature event, was an assistant to the dual-purpose handler Jonathan Sheppard in the 1980s.

Hoping to be hot on the heels of those graduates is Seth Benzel, the American trainer who guided Dux Scholar through two Dubai World Cup Carnival starts and into a berth in the Al Quoz Sprint in his first season in Dubai.

When a cocky youth, Benzel felt he could follow the example set by Dale Romans, the American trainer who runs Dullahan and Little Mike on World Cup night, and train at 18 years old.

He had modest success but he really hit his straps when learning under Bill Mott, the Dubai World Cup-winning trainer responsible for Royal Delta on Saturday.

Benzel walked up to Mott on his return from securing the inaugural World Cup with Cigar in 1996 and asked for a job.

He worked firstly as an exercise rider and progressed to assistant before moving to look after around 85 juveniles for Todd Pletcher, the quadruple Eclipse Award-winning trainer who had been an assistant to D Wayne Lukas.

"Both operations required a huge amount of attention to detail and organisation," Benzel said. "It provided the framework to go out there and juggle the various hats that you need as a trainer.

"They both handle high quality and numbers, and that made me comfortable in those situations.

"Mott and Pletcher are high-quality guys. They regularly make the right decisions and I was able to see them do it and learn from them.

"It meant I was not intimidated by being around quality horses. This is a high investment game, with horses costing millions of dollars, but to succeed in this game you cannot be intimidated by responsibility."

Benzel's experience under Mott and Pletcher resulted in an ability to deal with high-profile owners as well such as Charlotte Weber, the Campbell's Soup heiress, Eugene Melnyk, the owner of NHL's Ottawa Senators, not to mention Dux Scholar's owner, Ramzan Kadyrov, the colourful president of the Chechen Republic.

"Thank goodness to the connections of Dux Scholar for giving me the opportunity to come over to Dubai to compete on World Cup night," Benzel said.

"For me as a trainer it is one of those things that I never imagined. It will be amazing."

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