“I’m at Keeneland. It’s beautiful.”
No, it is not exactly an assembly line or salt mine where Jack Sisterson works. The verdant hills and farms of Kentucky bluegrass are not exactly the four walls surrounding Dilbert.
In his role as a young, private trainer he insists that he is just one small part of a big team at Calumet Farm. Even so he has been trusted with horses like Everfast, Bandua, Lexitonian and most recently True Timber, all handed down from other trainers. All they do is earn their way into stakes company. So, therefore, does Sisterson.
“To be honest I have no idea where I am in the pecking order,” said Sisterson, 35, a native of England and University of Louisville graduate who joined Calumet two years ago. “I don’t know the process behind it. I’m just fortunate to train for them.”
One of maybe a dozen private trainers on the Calumet payroll, Sisterson was described by another member of the team as having “an innate ability to get inside the head of his horses. Without a doubt he knows how to keep them happy.”
Consider a recent example. After winning at 11-1 odds Friday in a Churchill Downs allowance sprint that included Grade 1 winner Hog Creek Hustle and two last-time-out winners, Lexitonian is a microcosm of what Sisterson has accomplished.
The sprinter by Speightstown out of a Tapit mare broke his maiden two years ago for Todd Pletcher, Sisterson’s first boss in the racing business.
Then Calumet decided to send Lexitonian to Sisterson to start 2019. Coming off a seven-month break, Lexitonian raced four times in 10 weeks and earned two wins, one in a black-type stakes. A third-place Grade 2 finish followed. So did another winter break.
Making his 4-year-old debut in April in a loaded Grade 3 race at Oaklawn Park, Lexitonian fizzled with flat, 10th-place effort – or lack of it. But not in the eyes of Sisterson.
“He ran a better race on paper than it looked,” he said. “He needed that race at Oaklawn in what should have been a Grade 1.”
Before Friday’s race Sisterson looked at the morning line and said that Lexitonian “shouldn’t be 20-1. The times he pops up and wins he’s a long shot.” The ensuing victory only burnished his forecast for a quick return to stakes competition.
On first impression, Sisterson could easily be described as a horse whisperer. But that can really be said of any trainer who finds his way back to the winner’s circle. While it is hard to quantify, it is easy to get the idea that Sisterson has a way with animals. And with humans.
“First of all, Jack Sisterson is a hell of a horseman,” said trainer Doug O’Neill, who employed Sisterson as an assistant until Calumet came calling. “There’s no place he’d rather be than at the barn. Secondly, he’s an unbelievable human being. Got a flat at midnight and don’t know who to call for help? If you’re a friend of Jack’s, he’s the guy you call.”
There is no real pattern to fit the 40-50 horses that Sisterson trains at any given time. Where Lexitonian is a sprinter, Everfast is an accomplished route horse, Bandua is a turf specialist and True Timber is a veteran dirt ’tweener still looking for his first stakes victory.
“In my barn each horse is different, so I train them differently,” Sisterson said. “If I have a sprinter, I’m going to train him as a sprinter. If I have a mile-and-a-half type on the grass I’m going to train him so.”
Case in point: Everfast. After finishing second in last year’s Preakness for Dale Romans, he missed the board in his last four starts of 2019, none at less than nine furlongs. Then he was transferred to Sisterson.
After a six-month break Everfast finished second in both an Oaklawn Park allowance and the May 23 Blame Stakes at Churchill Downs. Both those races were at a mile.
“Dale did a great job with him as a two-turn type,” Sisterson said. “But then you saw him run a flat mile at Oaklawn. The way he seemed to pick up speed as we trained him, I thought the Blame was appealing to him. I thought he might be a horse that was suited to one turn.”
Sisterson has also had Bandua in 1½ years since the horse came over from Europe after going 0-for-5 in stakes for 21-time Irish training champion Dermot Weld. A victory in last year’s Arlington Handicap (G3) led to the Breeders’ Cup, where he was an overmatched 10th in the Turf. Bandua has been on a break since, waiting to make his 5-year-old debut.
“Hopefully the Arlington Million is still on,” said Sisterson, knowing that that may be a long shot given Arlington Park’s uncertain future. “The Million, the United Nations at Monmouth, something like that. He won’t be ready for the Manhattan (July 4 at Belmont Park). Is he a mile-and-a-half horse? I don’t know. He’s not a miler. I need to find his niche.”
True Timber is Sisterson’s newest project, coming to him after Kiaran McLaughlin decided to switch from trainer to jockey agent. Now 6, he has started 16 stakes, hitting the board in eight of them including twice in the Cigar Mile (G1), but never winning. His last race was Feb. 29, when he was fourth in the Gulfstream Park Mile (G2).
“There’s a question mark on where to run him,” Sisterson said “With all the cancellations and late additions to the calendar, who knows? We have Keeneland for him this summer, and we have a potential Breeders’ Cup horse at the end of the year. But the good news is that he’s doing great. That’s all I can ask for him at the moment.”
Keeping horses happy is almost a mantra for Sisterson and anyone who knows him. It is his goal, his secret to whatever success he finds at the racetrack and maybe some would say his obsession.
“Each horse is different, and we let them put their feet where they want to be,” he said. “They tell us. I think when horses are happy, they run better. I like to get each horse to a happy point and move forward from there, so it takes a bit of time.
“The staff kind of gets frustrated with me because they’ll ask, ‘What’s Jack coming up with there?’ But when we find a happy medium where the staff is happy and the horse is happy, then it seems that they go a little bit better.”
A Calumet colleague who preferred to go nameless spotted Sisterson as a soccer player at U of L and said that “you have to have a little bit of a certain mentality to balance academics with being a Division 1 college athlete. That is such a plus in a person. He has a passion. And he shows that passion for training a racehorse.”
Sisterson’s growing reputation even showed up in an obscure way in his native England. The bookmaker Bet365 recently opened High Cruise, an unraced Bayern colt out of a Tapit mare, at 100-1 in its Kentucky Derby futures. Apparently, some bettor saw that he had fired a bullet work at Keeneland on May 23 and asked for a price.
No one was more surprised to hear that than his trainer.
“I have no idea how that’s happened,” Sisterson said. “That’s news to me. I’m still waiting for the second (condition) book to come out at Churchill before I decide where to race him. A Kentucky Derby horse? That would be a longshot.”
In Sisterson’s world, give him a more realistic value horse like Lexitonian. That is a longshot he does not mind playing.
As he put it, “We prefer him like that.”
Ron Flatter has covered horse racing around the world for more than 30 years. Currently based in Nevada and working for the Vegas Stats & Information Network, he is host of the weekly Ron Flatter Racing Pod and on Twitter @ronflatter.