Frank Dominguez is most comfortable Out West. But come fall, the Great Basin buckaroo heads to Lexington, Kentucky, to start racehorses for one of the most prominent names in racing, Calumet Farm.
In Kentuckyâ€™s bluegrass region, the early morning air is full of moisture and money. Lush grass and ancient trees muffle hoofbeats as multi-million-dollar horses are led to training tracks and pastures.
Frank Dominguez, a 36-year-old buckaroo wearing worn and scarred chinks, walked into a paddock, then took off his low-crowned, wide-brimmed cowboy hat and dropped it by the fence. He turned and walked toward a mounted trainer, who waited beside a groom holding a rangy Thoroughbred.
Dominguez, who was raised in southeastern Oregon by his grandparents, worked on ranches for years, spending his childhood summers on some of the most remote and isolated ranchland in the lower 48 states. Heâ€™s started hundreds of colts (his first at age 9, under the watchful eye of his cowboy grandfather), but the buckaroo, newly hired to start horses at Calumet Farm, had never been on a racehorse.
Dominguez climbed into the lightweight exercise saddle and the trainer ponied him to the track, where he told Dominguez to take the colt twice around and quit. The trainer galloped beside Dominguez for a short while, and then turned him loose.
â€śThe posts of the track rail went by so fast it looked like a picket fence, and every time I took a shorter hold, he sped it up another notch until, at the end, I was practically holding onto the snaffle rings,â€ť Dominguez says. â€śFortunately, that horse was better trained than I was, and at the end of the second lap he naturally pulled up and started slowing down. It gave me a whole new respect for exercise riders.â€ť
Calumet Farm was established in 1924. The Lexington, Kentucky, operation began as a Standardbred program run by William Monroe Wright, owner of Calumet Baking Power Company. It quickly became one of the premier harness racing farms in the country. In 1931, just seven years after opening, Whiteâ€™s trotter Calumet Butler won the Hambletonian Stakes, the most prestigious harness race in the country.
Wrightâ€™s son, Warren, transformed the farm into a Thoroughbred facility. Its horses have won the Triple Crown twice and graced the winnerâ€™s circles of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes a total of 19 times. But the farm has also seen its share of disgrace, including bankruptcy and prison terms for bribery, fraud and conspiracy.
Mystery and scandal also haunt the grounds. In 1948, Calumet jockey Albert Snider vanished on a fishing trip in the Florida Keys, and in 1990, legendary racehorse Alydar was suspiciously and fatally injured in his stall late one night.
Calumet Farm looks the way a famous Kentucky Thoroughbred farm should look, with 800 acres of manicured green grass, 19 white barns trimmed in red, two tracks, towering shade trees and miles of white fences. What look out of place are the buckaroos who work there, with Wade-tree saddles and carrying reatas.
â€śIt was different for me when I first went out there,â€ť Dominguez says. â€śI liked all that green and the people are real nice, but theyâ€™re not cowboys. Of course, any new country a guy goes to he canâ€™t just try to take over. He has to take the best of what he finds and try to bring the best of what he knows.â€ť
Much of what Dominguez knows he learned from his grandfather and the men he worked with on Great Basin ranches. After high school, Dominguez cowboyed in Nevada, at outfits like the Spanish Ranch and the YP. On these million-acre ranches, where the headquarters may be an hourâ€™s drive from the nearest hardtop, self-reliance is as important as riding, reading a cow or throwing a rope.
â€śIâ€™ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of good hands,â€ť he says. â€śAnd I tried to learn from them all.â€ť
But it was famed clinician Martin Black who introduced Dominguez to Calumet six years ago. Dominguez worked alongside Black, and later T. J. Thompson, before heading his own team. Today, his job is to start colts that sell for seven figures. But despite the high stakes and prestige, he starts the horses the same way heâ€™d start a cow ponyâ€”in a round pen, with a flag, from another horse. When the horses are ready, he begins riding.
â€śAll we try to do with the early starting is teach the horse that being ridden is a good thing, and that being in the gate is a good thing,â€ť he says. â€śAnd we teach manners, respect. Too many English riders let their horses walk all over them.
â€śI thought all those Thoroughbreds were going to be real hot-blooded,â€ť he says. â€śYou see them dancing up and down and all, but theyâ€™re real easy to start. Theyâ€™re big, kind, nice guys, and just about all of them would make real good saddle horses.â€ť
Dominquez employs techniques made famous by horsemen like Tom and Bill Dorrance, Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman, using the horseâ€™s behavior and instincts as inspiration. But such training, now popularly known as natural horsemanship, has appeared at Calumet before.
In 1939, racehorse trainer Ben Jones spent months with a colt that had been labeled â€śfoolishâ€ť and â€śtroubled,â€ť walking the horse around the track, leading him into starting gates, allowing him to graze in the paddock and chew on the track rail. Eventually, the horse became comfortable with the track and progressed as a racer. The colt, Whirlaway, became Calumetâ€™s first Triple Crown winner the following year.
With equal patience, Dominguez starts his colts for 90 days. Then the horses receive a 30- to 60-day break before returning to training. His process, though not accepted by some who cling to old-fashioned methods, respects the ongoing development of the young horses, says Bill Witman, Calumetâ€™s farm manager.
â€śEverybody always talks about how physically fragile racehorses are at that age, but whatâ€™s even more important is how mentally fragile they are,â€ť Witman says. â€śThey need someone to listen to them, someone to start them in a way that gives their minds and bodies the best chance for success.â€ť
Witman says the rest makes the animals eager to learn.
â€ś[Dominguez] builds the horseâ€™s confidence and lays a good foundation for the trainers to take these colts to the next level,â€ť he explains. â€śBefore Frank came here, when it came time to start the 2-year-olds, all my exercise riders would suddenly disappear. Now you watch the started horses being led with their heads down, calm and relaxed.â€ť
Thatâ€™s when Dominguez knows itâ€™s time to head home.
Heâ€™ll spend his summer branding calves and gathering cattle in Nevada and California. In the fall, heâ€™ll return to Calumet to start horses as he would a cow ponyâ€”with kindness, patience and cowboy common sense.
Jameson Parker is a California-based writer. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.Â