She touched down in Florida after a whirlwind weekend that had her loading up the big horse in California, then settling a stable at Churchill Downs in Kentucky. By the time Helen Pitts-Blasi got back to Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach on Wednesday afternoon, she was facing a case of cross-country jet lag. Her horse, on the other hand, was feeling just fine. And as any trainer will tell you, that's all that matters.
Einstein, a 7-year-old Brazilian-bred, won the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap last weekend and made Pitts-Blasi the first woman in 73 runnings to capture the race. Adding the Big 'Cap win to his résumé, this son of Spend A Buck became one of the first horses in history to capture graded stakes on three surfaces (grass, dirt and synthetics). The winner's share of the 1¼-mile event pushed his bankroll to $2,278,020 and left his connections contemplating a return trip in the fall — can anyone say Breeders' Cup Classic?
"He shipped really good; he was wild when he got back here," Pitts-Blasi said. "He's a special character and it's great to have him in the barn. He and I are the best of friends; he means the world to me."
Those words aren't often heard in the hard-knocking world of horse racing, but then Pitts-Blasi isn't your stereotypical horse trainer. For one thing, she knew her runner would head into Santa Anita's Big 'Cap with a legitimate shot at taking the race because she was the one in the saddle for his last work over the Southern California oval's artificial surface. For another, she's a 34-year-old woman who hung up her shingle a little over four years ago, after leaving an assistant trainer's position under the shadow of Ken McPeek.
"This is definitely a man's world, but I just kind of do the best I can and hopefully that will get me somewhere," she said. "It's hard, but man or woman, if you try to better yourself and do more, it usually works out in the end."
Female trainers have been making a name for themselves in this male-dominated sport since Mary Hirsch became the first woman licensed to saddle a Thoroughbred, in 1935. Mary Kleim won the Kentucky Oaks in 1965, and Jenine Sahadi became the first female trainer to win the Breeders' Cup when she sent Lit de Justice to take the 1996 running of the Sprint. Even as recently as 2004, Kristin Mulhall sent Imperialism to finish third in the Kentucky Derby. But simple mathematics point to the fact that more men run stables than women do, and no matter what your gender, the better horses are not easy to come by.
That's a lesson Pitts-Blasi has been taught well. In 2007, she saddled a chestnut 3-year-old to break his maiden by an impressive 12¾-lengths. That colt would go on to be sold for $3.5 million and, after transferring to the barn of trainer Steve Asmussen, would become a two-time horse of the year.
It is often tempting to dwell on what could have been, and perhaps if Pitts-Blasi had less to keep her occupied, thoughts of how it would have felt to campaign Curlin might fill her mind. But now there is the versatile Einstein to train and a host of other runners to shape, and Pitts-Blasi has learned to take good and bad in stride.
"Curlin certainly helped my career and Einstein helped make me who I am today," she said. "I've been growing in the business and I've been around a little longer than a year or two. I don't want to get too big to where I don't know what's going on with all of my horses."
Those horses include Einstein, Major Pleasure (a son of Officer coming out of California off a layup) and some nice 3-year-olds among the 12 runners stabled at Churchill and 24 still in Florida.
"It'll be exciting to see them come up and get started," Pitts-Blasi said.
She doesn't view herself as a historical figure, although the win at Santa Anita was not her first foray into the record books. The native of Monkton, Maryland also became the second female trainer to saddle a Grade I winner at Keeneland Race Course when she took the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup with Sweet Talker in 2005.
"I think there's plenty of women involved in the game and the more you can learn, the more you can better yourself, the better off you are," she said. "I was fortunate enough to grow up around horses and learn from great people and I was willing to work hard, and that's what this game is all about."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union, and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.