Moving from a sterile biomedical laboratory of small precision instruments to a dusty, active barn housing 1,000-pound Thoroughbreds might have been an unusual job change for most professionals.But for Michelle Nihei the switch in careers from a junior faculty member and science researcher at Johns Hopkins University to a Thoroughbred trainer at racetracks in Florida, New York, and Kentucky was a matter of following a lifelong passion for horses that began when her father led his young daughter around their Calgary, Alberta, Canada, backyard on a Shetland pony.
“I was in love with horses before I knew what a horse was,” the trainer said. “My mother and grandmother couldn’t figure out where I developed this penchant for horses, but from the minute I saw one, I knew I wanted to be on a horse.” At 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds, Nihei, 41, who started out as an exercise rider, has an exotic look as she moves, sprite-like, among the massive animals in her barn, examining them carefully, talking to them, speaking Spanish with their grooms. In high school she was a middle-distance runner and played volleyball; she tried basketball but got too angry when she was fouled, wanting to retaliate.
Nihei’s initial attraction to academics was natural. Her father, a Japanese-American whom the U.S. deported to Japan for a year after alleging Communist connections, was a professor in biochemistry and medicine. He had come to America on a Fulbright Scholarship, married an American woman, and taught at various universities before moving to Canada. Nihei’s mother also earned a law degree late in life.
Self-reliance and dealing with dramatic change were other lessons Nihei learned early. Her parents eventually divorced. Then her father suffered a massive stroke in his 50s that left him in a coma for two years before he died, with his teenage daughter constantly at his side. Her mother later developed cancer and died when Nihei was in her 20s. Nihei recalled being on her own from a young age.
“I remember most spending a lot of time in the woods in New Hampshire with my
(maternal) grandparents,” Nihei said. She never met her father’s parents; her understanding is that they were killed in World War II bombings.
Always an excellent student, Nihei received a doctorate in neuroscience in 1997 from the University of Kentucky. During her time there, a faculty member took her to visit Secretariat’s grave, an image which remained with her while she accepted a research and junior faculty position at Hopkins, where she remained until 2001. She worked on various projects, chief among them isolating the effects of lead and other toxic substances on the brain. Nihei presented her research at scientific seminars and published results in journals.
Even while at Johns Hopkins, however, she was never far from the racetrack, if not physically, certainly in spirit. When she had time she worked on horse farms and backstretches in Maryland and finally, when she found herself looking more at Thoroughbred websites than those connected to her research, she knew it was time for a change and packed up and moved to Kentucky.
For several years she worked as an exercise rider for a host of trainers: Andrew McKeever, Dallas Stewart, Christopher Speckert, and Rebecca Maker. Finally in 2003, trainer Todd Pletcher gave in to her persistence and hired her to work with a few of his strings in Kentucky and Florida, eventually promoting her to assistant trainer. Nihei compares her education with Pletcher (from 2003-07) to being in graduate school. Pletcher said he hired Nihei because of her competence
and passion for the sport. He also praised her work ethic. “She puts in the hours, days, and months it takes to be successful,” he said. As to her career switch, “there has to be something in life you’re passionate about—otherwise it’s just a job.”
One morning while working a Pletcher filly in Florida, Nihei was so focused on a multi-million-dollar Coolmore horse that had just arrived that she was caught by surprise when her filly reared up and fell on her, destroying her tibia and all of the soft tissue in her right knee. Through the pain, she overheard an ambulance driver saying she’d be lucky to walk again, much less ride. “I remember thinking ‘there’s no chance he will be right,’ ” she said.
Pletcher’s owners hired a limo to drive her the 17 hours from Palm Meadows Training Center to Louisville. Physicians warned her she may lose the leg below the knee; she demanded a second opinion. Tests indicated blood was getting to that part of her body and the talk of amputation stopped. She rehabbed at Susan Atkins’ Casa Farms near Lexington, withstanding the rigors of five surgeries in nine months, procedures that have deprived her of full range of motion in her right leg but left her fit enough to ride again.
It wasn’t clear if Pletcher was going to hire Nihei back and since she had been thinking about going out on her own anyhow, she took the plunge and landed at Tampa Bay Downs in late 2007 with three horses. “In retrospect it was crazy,” Nihei said, referring to the declining economy. “There was absolutely nothing good about the timing.”
In January 2008, she won her first race with Heartaches and her first stakes race later that year when Sousaphone won the Vivacious Handicap at River Downs. Her first full year she had earnings of $183,699 from 55 starts. Since 2007 her horses have earned more than $2 million. In 2010 Prince Will I Am won the Jamaica Handicap (gr. IT) at Belmont. The Victory Gallop colt has banked $424,311 in 17 starts, including a victory in the 11⁄2-mile W.L. McKnight Handicap (gr. II) at Calder Race Course. Prince Will I Am last raced at Saratoga in the Sept. 1 Bernard Baruch Handicap (gr.IIT), finishing sixth.
Nihei has about 30 horses in training as well as a number of yearlings and 2-year-olds. She has stables in New York and Palm Meadows. Among her other successful horses are Upgrade, a 5-year-old gelding who won the seven-furlong Jaipur Stakes (gr.IIIT) in June at Belmont, and Artest, a 3-year-old Hard Spun colt who won the Quick Call Stakes on the turf at Saratoga July 26 under John Velazquez. Angel Cordero Jr., Velazquez’ agent and a close friend of Nihei’s since the two worked for Pletcher, said he has no reservations about booking his client on her horses. But, like others, Cordero scratches his head when it comes to analyzing her decision to turn in her white lab coat for mud-caked jeans. “I told her I can’t believe she spent all that time in college and then came to the horses,” Cordero said.
All that college time has left its mark on Nihei, from details as small as the scientific terms that she frequently uses, to the neatly organized Excel programs that help run her barns, to her knowledge and focus on a horse’s biology and physical well-being, to her task-oriented discipline.
She said although there are no direct scientific applications from her work as a neuroscientist to her current occupation, connections do exist between academics and training horses. “The thing that gives you the most confidence is accomplishment,” she said. “You have an end point. Education makes that easy. It’s like winning a race—you have an end point and you’re given credit. In a race, you’re first, second, or third. This allows you to understand you are capable of accomplishing an end point.”
Atkins and other owners say Nihei is meticulous when it comes to their horses and among the hardest-working trainers they have dealt with. They are also quick to praise her forthrightness—her insistence on being truthful with them rather than sugarcoating bad news. “She’s not going to hide anything from her owners,” said Steve Ciccarone, who has several horses with Nihei, including Regalo Mia, a 3-year-old filly who has placed in three graded stakes on the turf. “She is honest as they come and does what is best for all of her horses. “Mia is a small filly but when Michelle was on her, she said it felt like she was ‘big’ under tack, like she was precocious and had something inside of her that would take her places, and she was obviously right,” added Ciccarone. “Michelle is a very intelligent person.”
Elliott and Cathy Masie have several horses with Nihei. “Of all the trainers I’ve had, Michelle has been the most interested in our horses and is high in communication,” Elliott Masie said. For example, a son of Sunriver, who he turned over to Nihei, “hadn’t done particularly well” on the more competitive circuits. “She was very up front…she told us ‘I don’t think this horse is going to make it at this level.’ So she shipped him to Canada and he appears to have a bright future there. A lot of trainers aren’t like that. She’s really getting them into shape and part of that is because she’s on them.”
“I like trainers who are hands-on,” said Pete Bradley, who has a few young horses with Nihei. A noted Kentucky bloodstock agent, Bradley said that for a small barn, Nihei has turned out a “solid number of winners and she lets me know what’s going on—good, bad, and indifferent.” In partnership with other owners, Bradley recently formed Ladies First Stables. Nihei is the primary trainer for the outfit, described by its website as owners with “girl power.” Spurred on by the recent
successes of Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Havre de Grace, and Goldikova, they will specialize in young fillies. Their first purchase, Bullette, a 2-year-old grey by Flashy Bull, is with Nihei.
“Michelle has a number of strengths,” said Mike Narlinger, who with his father, Dennis, owns about 10 of Nihei’s horses, including Artest, Upgrade, and a number of 2-year-olds. “She’s very open to any kind of therapeutic advancement and is always willing to try a new treatment,” he said, giving as an example her use of acupuncture on Upgrade.
Nihei said constantly re-evaluating situations is a necessity. “You’re dealing with a biological concept. Horses, think, breathe. There are a lot of variables to understand and be in control of,” she said. “Other times you have to sit back, close your eyes, and let things pull you along.
“I think there’s a lot of ways to interpret the horse,” Nihei continued. “Working them is an easy one for me because I’ve ridden for such a long time. It just provides a different index to evaluate what’s happening from work to work. But it can only work if you have a relatively small stable.” Nihei’s goal is to develop young horses for allowance and stakes races. “I don’t have the background and expertise for the claiming game,” she said. “I’m modeling myself after people like Bobby Frankel and to some extent Todd. I like to be hands-on. I want to ride the majority of my horses and that will mandate keeping the numbers down.” Though her barn is modest and manageable, Nihei says she never seems to have time to do the routine things.
The pace of her life precludes certain conventional choices, such as marriage and children. “I’ve always been very independent,” she said, adding she’s comfortable with the designation “loner.” “Even as a child I spent a lot of time on my own and both of my parents left me very early on. I don’t really feel like I’m missing out on things.
”When she left the lab for the backstretch, Nihei understood the risks involved but was also fully prepared for the changes and the uncertainty that the move could bring. “I’ve always been pretty secure about what is going on in my head,” she said. “I’m not the kind of person who makes
decisions by committee. This is my life.” Perhaps second life is more appropriate.