For as long as she can remember, 32-year-old Kelsey Danner has been making left turns. It began in her father’s barns at Churchill Downs and Oaklawn Park, scrubbing buckets and leading Thoroughbred racehorses around and around the shed row before school each morning. As she got older, she graduated to riding those same racehorses along the barn aisles.
“I don’t know how many laps I did around a shed row,” laughed Danner, who celebrated saddling her first winner last Saturday at Turfway Park. “I was the queen of tack-walking!”
Back in those days at Oaklawn, officials would kindly turn a blind eye on a young girl riding the stable pony up and down the horse path in the afternoons. By the time she turned 16, Danner was more than ready to start galloping her father’s horses on the track.
She was essentially born into the Thoroughbred industry: her grandfather was a jockey and a trainer, her cousin and father are trainers, and her mother is the racing operations manager for Churchill Downs. Despite all that, Danner elected to wait before taking out a training license on her own.
Once she finished high school, Danner began her secondary education by taking a job with Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Under his tutelage for about a year, she worked as both an exercise rider and a stable foreman.
“Organization was the one thing I learned from the Lukas barn,” Danner said. “The other thing was the importance of people skills; just listening to him talk, I would have given him the money to go buy a horse, if I’d had any! He knew how to talk to the owners, and now I’m starting to appreciate that talent even more.”
Over the next 10 years, Danner spent time in the employ of trainers Rusty Arnold and Ian Wilkes, as well as Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger. Her longest tenure, a total of five years, was spent as an assistant to Wayne Catalano.
In his florescent yellow stable colors, Danner was given both immense responsibility and the opportunity she’d been hoping for.
“Wayne gave me enough rope to hang myself with if I’d wanted to,” she said. “When he was interviewing me for the job, he said he wanted someone who wasn’t afraid to make mistakes.”
Catalano sent Danner all over the United States with strings of horses to oversee, and in the mornings, he legged her up on graded stakes winners like Room Service and Aurora’s Belle. The biggest name she rode for him, and also her favorite, was Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies champion Stephanie’s Kitten.
“As much as being a trainer is about working with the horses, a successful trainer has to be more than a good horseman,” Danner explained. “Wayne really let me be a part of everything, from setting my own training schedules to communicating with owners, going to sales, coordinating shipping arrangements, and even learning to read condition books from all different tracks to find the best possible race for a particular horse.”
When the traveling began to wear thin, Danner took a position near home to spend more time with family. For two years she worked at WinStar Farm’s training center, and in the summer of 2017, she decided it was time to take out her trainer’s license.
“You know, I worked for a lot of different people, so I got to see all different styles of training,” said Danner. “I’ve just taken the best parts of each system, the ones that work for me, to craft my own style. I am very hands-on, and I gallop most of my own horses, but I also try to make sure owners are really involved in the whole process. In this age of technology and social media, there’s no reason they can’t be more involved.
“Of course, there’s a lot of luck involved, both on and off the track. I’m very thankful to owners like Mr. (Darrell) Yates and Nan Pierce, everybody who has been so supportive in giving me a real chance. They all really wanted my first win to be with their horse!”
Her first victory came in the first race at Turfway Park Saturday afternoon when Majestic Bold, a 3-year-old son of Majestic Warrior, broke his maiden in his fifth start.
The sweet scent of fresh hay, the soft snorts of the horses in their stalls, and the constancy of left-handed turns formed the soundtrack of her childhood. Now, with the responsibility of 10 horses, Danner finds herself looking forward to the twists and turns of the road ahead, and hopes some of those left turns lead her into the winner’s circle again.
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