With six contenders vying for first prize in Saturday’s Breeders Crown races, trainer Tony Alagna would seem to have a full plate.
But Tony also has 104 other horses and 30 employees that figure into his equation on a daily basis. How does he do it?
Organization and a terrific staff is what Tony says makes his barn—his business—run successfully.
“Organization is paramount for this number of horses,” Tony acknowledged. “Being on a schedule with the horses on a daily basis is paramount. For instance, our first training sets start at 8 am and my trainers know they are to be on the track promptly at 8, and that I’d better not see them out there at 8:10.”
Tony has three barns at Gaitway Farm in New Jersey, with 30 horses housed in each barn.
“I have six trainers who are in charge of 15 horses and three caretakers,” he explained. “We also have four people who just help jog horses. I have the training schedule set up so that all of the horses are grouped in sets of six, to allow us for an optimum training regime.
“Good help is irreplaceable,” he stressed. “You can’t run any business without good staff. I have great people that work for me, and when I walk away from the barn I don’t have to worry, because I know things will get done properly.”
Autumn can especially wreak havoc with Tony’s busy schedule, as in addition to having big stakes to contend with, he also has to begin selecting stock for next year’s races.
“This is the time of year when I go to farms to look at yearlings,” he noted. “To have a terrific staff that will run the barn when I’m away is great for my peace of mind. The barn is organized so that everyone knows what to do. When I was in Lexington, the New Jersey staff kept things running smoothly. We also have a strict procedure in place for when a new horse comes into the barn.”
Tony’s stable has grown substantially over the past two years, necessitating the hiring of more personnel.
“I tell every new employee that I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, and that we have a protocol to follow,” he stated. “As we’ve had success, the business has grown. When we started out, I didn’t have any equipment and had to buy everything, and I had to hire help. I’ve tried to limit the number of horses that we have at Gaitway to 90, and anything over that I send to my mom (trainer Donna Lee-Ozment) in Chicago.”
“Working for Brian (Pinske) and Erv (Miller) taught me how to manage a large stable,” Tony said. “There were a few programs I initiated when I worked for Erv that I’ve carried over to my stable.”
One of those programs involves keeping a daily medical log and vet record on each horse.
“We keep a daily record of any medical issues a horse has, so that when we begin training that horse and he needs to be examined by a veterinarian, the vet will know the horse’s complete history. There’s nothing left to chance. We add comments to the medical record and also track his shoeing changes the same way.
“If a horse travels to another location or to another trainer, then all of those records go with him, so that the horse’s conditioning stays consistent as he travels. This way we have a complete training, medical, and shoeing history of the horse no matter where he’s at, at any given time.
“I’m a strong believer in routine blood analysis, and we make sure to attach the blood work sheet onto each horse’s medical sheet so we can stay on target with keeping a horse’s blood levels where they need to be.”
The husband and wife team of Paul and Courtney Stafford, both 33, have been an intricate part of the Alagna Racing team for three years. Courtney is office manager, while Paul is a trainer.
“I make sure the business runs smoothly,” Courtney offered. “With 110 horses to manage, it can seem overwhelming at first, but because everything is so well organized, the day-to-day operation flows exceptionally well.”
In the Alagna barn office, there is a large board on the wall, christened the “Horse Locator,” with the names of every horse in the stable on it, each listed under a specific jurisdiction (i.e., New Jersey, Chicago, Canada, Lexington).
“This is a great way to keep track of where all the horses are at all times,” Courtney explained. “We have magnetic strips with all the horse’s names on them and can move them around as need be.”
“Besides the Horse Locator board we have a stable roster clip board,” Tony interjected. “I can look at the board and see that a certain horse is turned out at Hunterdon Farm, and the stable roster clip board on my desk tells me what day he was turned out, and I can then determine when he’s ready to come back in. I have all of that information right in front of me, every day. It’s another way to help the stable operate efficiently.”
Each morning, Tony and Courtney discuss which horses need to be entered at a specific racetrack, and if driver changes are needed.
“After Tony makes his decisions, I call the racetracks,” Courtney said. “It frees Tony up to concentrate on the training.”
“It’s nothing for us to train 60 horses in one day,” Paul surmised. “Tony has this operation down to a science. We have a schedule and we stick to it. It’s amazing what we accomplish on a daily basis with so many horses and people.”
“I’m fortunate to have a great working staff, and to have Courtney in the Gaitway office,” Tony noted. “She handles the purchasing of supplies in addition to her other duties, while my Mom, in Chicago, handles the billing, so nothing is left to chance.”
Tony also employs a trio of blacksmiths at his New Jersey base.
“I do that because I think some farriers are better for certain horses than others,” he noted. “We also have a small team based in Canada—a trainer and a couple of grooms—so that we have a place to send horses when they need to race up there.”
“Being at Gaitway, with the farm atmosphere and all the amenities that it offers, is the perfect set-up for me,” Tony said. “We have a regular swimming pool, a salt-water pool and hyperbaric chamber. I love the salt-water pool—it’s really beneficial for a horse with sore feet. The surfaces nowadays at a lot of the faster tracks contribute to sore feet and the salt-water is just terrific them, as well as for general aches and pains, and in particular for knees on young horses. It’s another tool we use in our routine.”
Being in Tony’s barn at Gaitway, once can’t help but notice that it is an exceptionally clean barn, too.
“When we go to Lexington, I have the staff pull all the mats out of the stalls and power-wash them, along with the stalls.
“This is our home—it’s where we work day in and day out,” Tony stressed. “I want a clean, great working environment for my horses and my staff. I wouldn’t want to go to work in a dirty office and I don’t think we should work in a dirty barn.”
In the Spring, Tony encourages his owners to visit the barn to see their youngsters in training.
“Courtney creates a small program on the computer and prints it out, and we put saddle pads and head numbers on the babies, so that when a client comes down and has maybe only seen their horse two or three times before, they are able to identify them on the track. This is something they used to do at Ben White Raceway in Florida 50 years ago—back then every horse had its own head number for the entire winter.”
“It’s really been a hit with the owners,” Courtney said. “It’s so much easier for them to know which horses are theirs when they see them on the track.”
“Being around this caliber of horses, in this environment, and especially working with a horse like Captaintreacherous, makes it exciting to be at the barn every day,” Paul admitted. “He’s the real deal, a once in a lifetime horse.”
Tony says having a horse like Captaintreacherous in the barn is a welcomed conundrum.
“It’s two-fold,” he said. “When you have so many other things going on, it’s good because you don’t over-analyze a horse like him. I don’t get caught up watching him 24/7. You’ve got to let him be a horse and not fret over him too much on a daily basis. But Captain is great for everyone in the barn—he’s great for the employees, great for moral, and great for me. And there are times when we all do focus on him and enjoy him, and the great ride he’s blessed us with.”
Though an operation the size of the Alagna Stable might overwhelm some, Tony seems to take it all in stride.
“I think anyone can do what I’ve done,” Tony remarked. “I started out paddocking $4,000 claimers at Fairmount Park. You have to set a goal and be willing to work hard, and work for people in the industry who are successful—people like Jimmy Takter and Linda Toscano. You have to never stop learning and to have an open mind. If you have a closed mind, you’ll stop going forward. When I went out on my own at age 37, I did so because I felt I was ready. I felt that I needed those years working for other, successful trainers, to have the skills I needed to compete at this level.”
With those skills firmly in place, Tony made his first foray into Breeders Crown competition in 2012, with 12 horses competing at Canada’s Woodbine Racetrack. Six of those starters made the finals.
“A year ago my Mom and I were driving to Woodbine for the Breeders Crown, and she asked me if I ever thought I’d be having horses in the Breeders Crown, and I said yes! I told her that this is what I dreamed about, and what I worked hard to become. I think getting to this level only forces someone in my position to work harder to excel.
“Paul (Stafford) is right--what we do on a daily basis is amazing,” Tony acknowledged. “We have owners call and see if they should make an appointment to come to the barn, and we tell them to come out at will. We’ve got a lot of clients that are hands-on and who come to the barn a lot. If their horse is good or not good, the clients know immediately. We’re very open about things. We’ve built great relationships with people and don’t take those relationships lightly.”
by Kimbery Rinker for the Breeders Crown