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the ladder

Josie Carroll trains two Ivan Dalos-owned horses, Amis Gizmo and Gamble’s Ghost, who may run in the 157th edition of the race this coming Sunday.Michael Burns/The Globe and Mail

Josie Carroll, 58, began conditioning thoroughbreds at Woodbine Racetrack in 1994 and has ranked in the Top 10 among trainers for winnings the past three seasons. In 2006, Ms. Carroll became the first female trainer to win Canada's top race, the Queen's Plate with longshot Edenwold, and did it again with Inglorious in 2011. Ms. Carroll trains two Ivan Dalos-owned horses, Amis Gizmo and Gamble's Ghost, who may run in the 157th edition of the race this coming Sunday. Ms. Carroll has at least 20 wins and $1-million in prizes for 15 consecutive years.

Newspapers drew me to the sport as a kid. Every weekend the newspapers had photos and stories about the stake races at Woodbine. I liked the racing game and would place my little bets from the time I was very young, write them down, see how I did. But I got the entries and the results in the newspaper. It gave me the ability to study and learn all about it. Humber College gave me a placement here at Woodbine, and I never left.

We have a lifestyle here, not a job. If you're not prepared to devote seven days a week, it's not the job for you.

When I was grooming horses, [trainer] Michael Tammaro gave me an opportunity to run a barn for him, I was intimidated. He said, 'Do you want to stay in the stalls and groom horses all your life or move on? Just step up and do it.'

When [trainer] Mike Doyle became a general manager for Frank Stronach, some of his clients stayed with me [in 1994]. I knew horses, and I knew racing, but I didn't know a darned thing about business. He helped me get a line of credit from his bank, based on the accounts receivable he was moving over. Without that, I don't know how I would've got through the first month.

There were a lot of tough moments when we were scrambling for every nickel to make Friday payroll. You try not to panic but it's very stressful, like any entrepreneurial business.

You need someone to give you a hand.

Anyone starting in this business, you want to associate yourself with the best people you can, to learn off. As you achieve some success, then surround yourself with good people, the more the better, same as any business. That is the key to what really helped me. I have a tremendous crew, many of them have been with me for 20 years.

When I started, there weren't a lot of women training. It was just a different time. Now the women are as many or maybe outnumber the men back here [in the stables].

I don't think my gender helped or hindered. In this business, people respect hard work, respect talent. I just had passion for this. I still do. I have never been afraid of work. I gave everything I had. I think they appreciated that and in return, helped me on my way.

My day is nuts. I am at the barn at 5 every morning, and take a little walk around. My staff will tell me everything they've seen, that they think I ought to know. They are there before me. These are dedicated people. And you're watching the diet, training and sports medicine for all the animals. I still like to set my own feeds in the morning because it all starts with diet.

I am fortunate to have a husband at home who is really supportive. I don't think you can do this work without somebody who's got your back.

I have 27 people [and 45 horse stalls]: grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders, two assistant trainers. This business is labour intensive. You have to have good people to make it work. You couldn't do it otherwise because you'd miss too much. My assistant is details oriented. You need somebody like that. I am kind of all over the place.

I describe the occupation as being the coach of a team. I try to talk to everyone every day because they know the horses. Those little insights make a difference. Details win races. Details, and good horses.

If you don't have the right horses, it's pretty hard. You're not making money. The owner pays a flat day-rate per horse to cover expenses of training. If you do it right, it barely covers. You've got to win races or, 1) you're not going to make money, and 2) you're not going to keep clients.

It's about winning. It's a sport where people invest a lot of money. They want to come over here and have fun, but bottom line, you better get the job done.

When you win with good horses, people notice. You can win a lot of cheaper races and maybe not attract the clientele you want. They want to know if they put a horse in your hands, you can do a good job with it.

After the Queen's Plate, we throw a barbecue for staff and owners. You'll see a multimillionaire sitting on a bale of hay with a guy making minimum wage, and they'll be having an animated conversation about what they love. It makes this job very special.

You have to know your clients. Ivan's love is breeding. He wants the Tall Oaks Farm name to become known for bloodlines. Some horses he sells, and you hate to see the good ones go elsewhere, but I know what's important to him is getting those horses out there. And he still retains a lot of nice horses but his passion is developing those bloodlines. And he loves racing. This is the first time going into the Queen's Plate with homebreds. There can be significant value to building a brand. If he can win, it helps in the future with sales and breeding his mares.

It takes a special horse to win the Plate. One of the primary characteristics of the first two, they had solid minds and talent. Like any top athlete, they handled stress extremely well. There's a lot of commotion before and during the Plate. With Inglorious, it was really funny. We were in the paddock a long time, and we saw a lot of horses getting upset. When she got fed up with all that, she turned around and started eating grass. No, no, no. Not on game day. But something had clicked, and she was getting ready to run race of her life. Same as any sport, it's how they handle their nerves.

Jockey Luis Contreras is out every morning. You ask him to do something, he's there. That mirrors my own work philosophy. I have an idea and he can put it into practice. Take the horse going to the Plate. With Amis Gizmo, we were going to have to find a way to relax the horse. Luis made a couple of suggestions, we put them into play and figured it out.

There isn't another job that gets this adrenalin rush, every time you run a horse. It doesn't get old – not when you're winning.

From horses, I have learned patience. It takes time to develop a horse and you need owners willing to give you the time to develop them the right way. If you push them too hard before they are ready, you can take their futures away.

As told to Tom Maloney

The interview has been edited and condensed.