Noble Threewitt passed on last month at age 99. He retired from training racehorses on his ninety-sixth birthday.

Thoroughbred horse racing has a tradition of trainers staying on way past the age that most people are retired. Some won big races in their seventies and eighties.

James “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, the trainer of two American Triple Crown champions, was in his eighties when he conditioned Nashua and Bold Ruler. Other Hall-of-Fame trainers have been septuagenarians when they won premier races. Ben A. Jones, born in 1882, was still helping his son Jimmy with the formidable Calumet Farm string of horses in the early 1960s. Charlie Whittingham won two Kentucky Derbys and a pair of Breeders’ Cup Classics with different horses. Mack Miller sent out Sea Hero to capture the 1993 Kentucky Derby. Woody Stephens, born in 1913, won a Kentucky Derby and five consecutive Belmont Stakes in the 1980s. Phillip G. Johnson won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2002 with Volponi.

All of these gentlemen are deceased with the exception of Mack Miller, who is retired. However, Hall-of-Fame trainers Alan Jerkens, D. Wayne Lukas, and Jack Van Berg are still at work, at the ages, respectively, of 81, 75, and 74. They don’t win races like they once did, but they still occasionally are to be reckoned with.

The life of an upper-echelon Thoroughbred horse trainer is a 24-hour-a-day and seven-day-a-week proposition with no real vacations. Trainers deal with equine injuries, disappointing performances by their charges, often-demanding owners, turnover of stable help, unpaid bills, long hours, and lots of travel. The aforementioned trainers did not need the money, so why did they continue on long after the minimum age for drawing social security?

Many people who live a fast-paced life, from all occupations, find upon retirement, often forced, that playing golf several days a week gets boring fast. Successful Thoroughbred horse trainers have a choice because they are not faced with a corporate policy mandating that employees leave at a certain age. The vast majority of horse trainers are independent contractors, who run their own operations. As long as they have the physical and mental capacities to do their work at an acceptable level, owners will retain their services.

For the most part, the trainers I’ve seen who are still plying their trade in their seventies or more are comparable in cognitive skills and usually physical stamina to much younger individuals. Is that why they are able to remain active or is it the other way around—they have good cognitive skills and physical stamina because they have continued to keep a schedule? Probably some of both is true.

An old adage from the Appalachian Mountains maintains that the key to a happy life is to have something to do, something to look forward to, and someone to love. Anybody training racehorses at a Hall-of-Fame level is assured of the first two at least.

Lord Palmerston, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan and others were fond of saying something along the lines of “there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” That has been proven to be so by some very productive seasoned-citizen trainers. Therein is a valuable lesson conveyed for all of us: find an occupation that you would choose as an avocation and you will never truly work a day in your life. 

Cavalryman and racehorse owner Churchill also opined that “no hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.” Churchill and Reagan, avid horsemen, were the oldest people to be elected to head their governments and both lived into their nineties.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business


  1. fenderbirds says

    nice article, keep the posts coming