By Julie Sarno
Despite the high cost of gas, thoroughbred trainer Joe Herrick lives locally, trains year-round at San Luis Rey Downs and ships his horses to race at Del Mar, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Trainers Paula Capestro, Pete Miller and Sam Semkin also have had success training at the Bonsall training center and shipping horses to race at Southern California tracks.
Walking down Joe Herrick's shedrow, one is impressed with the friendly attitude of the racehorses. Eight-year-old Olympic Moment, holder of a track record at Pomona, nickers when he sees Herrick.
"I think that's important," said Herrick. "Here at San Luis Rey Downs, you can turn horses out, let them be a horse. Horses reflect the atmosphere they are in."
The Herricks, Joe and wife Julie, own Grindstone Farm in Elfin Forest. His parents, Bill and Donna Herrick, live in Rancho Santa Fe and also racehorses.
Even though Joe is over 6' tall, he "breaks" his own horses and gets on them until he feels they have made enough progress. Only then does exercise rider Salvadore De Alba, father of Los Alamitos-based jockey Cesar De Alba, take over.
It's a formula that works. Last year, Herrick says he saddled five horses at Del Mar and every one of them hit the board.
"If horses fit and can handle the surface, they will do well," he said. "When Short Route raced at Del Mar, it was the first time she ever saw the track and she won."
Short Route won the 2005 Railbird Stakes (Gr. III) for 3-year-old fillies at Hollywood Park. Herrick has a 2-year-old half-brother to Short Route named Short Game. "He's by Laser Sport, who stands at Special T in Temecula," said the 46-year-old conditioner. "Short Route is by Mud Route."
Herrick's training philosophy is reminiscent of the late Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham. "If a horse needs time, I give him time," he said. "I've lost some owners that way but I have a clear conscience."
Herrick came to Thoroughbred training later in life.
"My family was in the hotel business," he said. "At one time we had 24 properties, which we owned and operated. I worked full time in that business. I was an owner (of racehorses) before I became a trainer."
After more than 10 years in the family hotel/motel business, Herrick decided to change careers. The family still owns several properties including the Inns of America on Cannon Road in Carlsbad.
Seeking relief from the stress of the day-to-day headaches of the hotel business, Herrick began developing his own farm just west of Escondido in 1987. "When you're working in an office, you appreciate the physical work so much more," he said.
The Herricks named their farm Grindstone, because of all the work they put into it. Herrick would get home from a full day at the office and have several hours of work to do at the farm. Herrick rues the fact that he did not even bet $2 on the colt named Grindstone who paid $13.80 on a $2 bet when he won the 1996 Kentucky Derby. Herrick's interest in horses began at an early age. "As a child growing up in La Habra Heights in Orange County, we had Quarter Horses," he said. "It's hard to believe now but in those days, we'd trail ride all day. Sometimes we'd ride from La Habra Heights to Whittier."
Herrick spent a lot of time with trainer Sam Semkin. "I learned a lot about racehorses from him," he said. "I watched what Sam was doing, how he was running his barn.
"I finally decided to pursue what I really wanted to do. I got my trainer's license in 1995 and have trained at San Luis Rey Downs ever since."
Herrick has done some "pinhooking," a term that refers to buying horses as yearlings, training them to become racehorses and selling them as 2-year-olds in training. The idea is recognize the potential in a horse, buy him for a reasonable price and sell at a profit later on. Herrick's success stories include buying one yearling for $45,000 and selling him at a 2-year-old in training sale for $200,000.
He specializes in starting yearlings, preparing 2-year-olds for the 2-year-old in training sales and returning older horses to the races. Herrick's wife Julie does all the billing and accounting for his business. She is an accomplished horsewoman who used to show hunter/jumpers.
Daughter Jordan, now 17, aspires to be a veterinarian. She has the distinction of being one of only 30 students nationwide accepted into the biology program run by Cosmos, a math and science course at U.C. Davis. Son Jeremy, 12, is more interested in soccer and plays for the Carmel Valley team named Manchester after the famous Manchester United team in England.
Things don't always go the way you plan in racing, noted Herrick. "My parents had a horse who my mother loved. My dad OK'd starting him in for $62,500 in a claiming race. Well, he was claimed and my father did not hear the end of it. So Dad called a bloodstock agent in Argentina and said, 'Find me a black horse.' The agent bought a horse named Magnum and the end of the story is good. Magnum finished second to Lava Man in the 2006 Santa Anita Derby and won the Lone Star Handicap and earned about $600,000. "Dad claimed the other horse back for mom," he said, "and he's in a paddock at their home."
The Herricks enjoy life in San Diego County and would not want to relocate to be closer to Los Angeles area tracks, even though it means a lot of driving for Joe when he races a horse. Locals who attend the Encinitas Christmas Parade see Herrick each year aboard stable pony Scout. Scout and Herrick also are in the Living Nativity at Horizon Church in Rancho Santa Fe each year, where Herrick plays the lead Roman soldier.