Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Katerina's wit: The Science of Success

Woodbine-based trainer Katerina Vassilieva, sporting a perfect record of two wins from two starts at Gulfstream Park to launch her 2012 campaign, has an eye for detail.

Katerina Vassilieva as a visitor (for now) at the Breeders' Cup

The 29-year-old conditioner, who previously worked as a hotwalker and exercise rider before signing on as Michael Pino’s assistant in 2009, hung out her shingle at Woodbine last year, and now oversees a compact, but talented, four-horse stable.

She wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I see them (the horses) in their stall and I get on them in the morning so if there was a key to the success that would be it right now,” says Vassilieva.

Keeping an eye on the little details was always going to be a part of Vassilieva’s vocation, even if she didn’t end up on the backstretch.

“Being a trainer was not my original plan at all,” she admits. “I was studying to be a forensic scientist. I did an Honours Bachelor of Science in Forensics and then a Masters in Genetics (at McMaster University) hoping to work in a lab one day. But, then I came to the racetrack and caught the bug and never left.”

The Mississauga native arrived on the Woodbine backstretch in 2006 looking to make some tuition money for university and immediately found work as a hotwalker and groom for trainer Mike Keogh.

Katerina and Petunia on show

In 2007, she ‘graduated’ from walking to riding, working as a gallop girl for trainer Reade Baker. Although she rode horses recreationally for some 15 years before starting at the racetrack, the transition to exercising racehorses proved to be a difficult venture.

“Since I rode, I thought it (exercising horses) would be natural and easy, but everybody told me it was so different,” recalls Vassilieva with a laugh. “You need to be so strong and it’s dangerous. People tried to dissuade me but I was stubborn and needed to prove myself. It really was very hard.”

To illustrate the point, she recalls a moment early on in her riding career in a quiet little corner of the Woodbine backstretch known as Baker’s Acres.

“Baker’s Acres is a very narrow track, lined by trees on either side, and if you go around the turn, and don’t make the turn, your horse is going into the tree,” starts Vassilieva. “One morning…my first month…the horse ran off and slammed into a tree.”

Although both rider and horse were, eventually, okay, the moment was something of an eye-opener.

“I had a lot of interesting moments learning how to gallop, but Reade was really nice to me and he didn’t fire me and let me learn,” she says.

Now she's got the hang of it!

Vassilieva, a student by nature, picked up her trade quickly, earning a reputation as an excellent exercise rider and was a go-to rider in the morning for a number of well-known Woodbine runners including Fatal Bullet, Bear Now and East End Tap.

Presenting on behalf of the Canadian Hall of Fame at the Spa

In 2009, she accepted a position as Michael Pino’s assistant and was immediately thrown into the deep-end, learning the ups-and-downs of the training game.

Pino, who runs a busy claiming operation racing at a number of tracks, put a lot of faith in Vassilieva’s abilities while he was on the road.

“We talked on the phone all the time,” says Vassilieva. “But sometimes I had 12 to 25 horses to manage at a time, plus staff, and I’d pretty much do that on my own. We had successful years both times that I worked for him. We were 21 percent the first year and 36 percent the second year.”

Sustainable Forest earned Vassilieva her first win as a trainer

The conditioner took out her trainer’s license in April 2011 with a modest group of horses completing her first year with a record of two wins, six seconds and four thirds from 19 starts.

Her first winner arrived on August 1 when Sustainable Forest wired a $55,900 MSW sprint over the Woodbine Polytrack.

“It was a relief,” says Vassilieva. “It was confirming to me that I could do this on my own. That I was doing the right thing and that I could do this.”

Katerina with her partner Tony Esposito (agent for jockey Luis Contreras) at Saratoga

If there is a favourite in the barn for Vassilieva, it has to be the six-year-old bay gelding Shabaab. The Stormy Atlantic-Serena's Sister fellow, once worth $300,000 to the Shadwell Stable, found his way to Pino’s barn, and Vassilieva’s heart, back in 2009.

“I instantly liked him,” she says. “As soon as I started getting on Shabaab, and started to know his personality, I loved him instantly. He loved his job, he loved to train and he was strong. He trained forwardly. He did everything right as a racehorse.”

Shabaab, who faltered in his lone start for Kiaran McLaughlin at Aqueduct, paid immediate dividends at Woodbine breaking his maiden in a six furlong 'Poly' sprint.

“Even though Mike wanted to run him for cheap, he never acted like a cheap horse to me,” recalls Vassilieva. “He always acted like a good horse.”

The maiden victory confirmed Vassilieva’s opinion of Shabaab, who put in a good effort in allowance company next out when second

“I knew he was going to be something special,” she says. “To me, he had the mind of a stake horse. Unfortunately, Shabaab’s body wasn’t always at the level of his mind. He always had issues along his career and interruption lines in his form because he had physical issues all along.”

Blues Dancing wins at Woodbine for Vassilieva

Shabaab, who endured a number of shin issues as a two-year-old, would routinely take time off from racing. The gelding won his last race for Shadwell in April of 2010, and when the horse came up with shin issues once more, Vassilieva stepped up and bought the horse for $20,000.

“He was supposed to be a great horse, but he had all these issues and his running was so sporadic,” says Vassilieva. “Good for a race and then something would happen to him.”

It would take seven months, until November 26, 2010, for Vassilieva to get Shabaab back to the track and he managed to pick up a cheque for his new owner finishing second, defeated just a neck, in a claiming event.

Vassilieva coaxed two more starts out of Shabaab, both at the Fair Grounds, before he had to go back on the shelf once more.

“He was off for 10 months and at a certain point I thought he might not make it back as a racehorse again as there were so many problems along the way,” she admits. “But, I had all the time in the world because he was my horse and I love him, but somebody else might have cast him away.”

Perhaps the trainer felt a special connection with the horse, or maybe she’s just been on the back of enough good horses to know talent when she sees it, but her patience is finally paying off.

“I thought about giving up and retiring him to be a pony lots of times, but there’s something about him, his spirit, that he always wanted to train and was strong and loved his job that I’d say, 'okay one more chance, I’ll try it again',” says Vassilieva.

Shabaab returned to the races with a second-place finish on December 4 at Woodbine, and her patience was rewarded on New Year’s Day with a gate-to-wire victory, under Luis Contreras, in a five-furlong turf allowance at Gulfstream.

“He came out perfect,” gushes Vassilieva. “He’s sounder and better than he’s ever been. I’m just tickled that I decided to go forward with him and didn’t’ give up on him.”

Vassilieva feels so strongly about the Florida-bred Shabaab’s ability that she has nominated him for the Sunshine Millions. If he were to find the wire first at that level, it would be a real coming out party for the conditioner.

Shabaab glides to victory at Gulfstream

Whether or not Shabaab is the horse that takes her career to the next level, the trainer is proud that to have followed her heart into a sport she loves, inspired, in part, by an Andre Gide quote that adorns the wall of her Facebook page:

"One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

“Sometimes in life you have to take risks. You have to get out of your comfort zone. That’s what that quote says to me,” explains Vassilieva. “A lot of times during my career, I wasn’t sure that this is what I should be doing. Am I wasting my education? Am I doing the right thing?

So, there were times when I was uncomfortable, but I always loved the horses, and I always knew that working with horses is what I wanted to do. So in my way, I stepped out of my comfort zone, knowing subconsciously, that it would pay off one day because that’s where my heart was.”

And now, that her fingerprints can be found on the back of a number of winners, perhaps the former forensic scientist can fully embrace the life she’s made for herself.

“You have to love it to do what we do,” laughs Vassilieva. “The hours we work, seven days a week, you have to love it. And now I ‘m happier than I’ve ever been.”

* * *

Vassilieva will send out Blues Dancing at Gulfstream Park on Thursday as she attempts to maintain her perfect record. The speedy filly is listed at 12-1 in the morning line after breaking her maiden in November at Woodbine.

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