Sunday, April 03, 2011

One Smart, Determined Lady

Usually Ph.D.s in neuroscience spend their lives chasing federal grants and finding Darwinian explanations for common sense or replacing the truths of revelation with the law of the jungle.  Michelle Nihei took the analytical mind of a scientist and the stick-to-it-ivity of a successful scholar and channeled them into her passion: horses.

Dr. Nehei left an academic job at Johns Hopkins to go back to Kentucky seeking work exercising horses, a sure fire path to poverty.   Bill Finley in the New York Times tells us, "She could have had a long career as a scientist. Instead, she chose to take her diplomas, her training and her background and virtually dump them in the trash."


'I just knew I’d be happiest doing this,'” she said."  So much for stereotypes!

She is now that rare soul, an increasingly successful woman trainer in a man's world of racing.

How did she do it?

"In 2003 she joined trainer Todd Pletcher as an assistant and soon was handling strings in Kentucky, Florida, and Delaware. During this time she rode and helped train champions Ashado and English Channel in addition to many other stakes winners." Jacqueline Duke is writing about her on, the web site for Blood Horse magazine a trade publication in the thoroughbred horse industry. Todd Pletcher might be thought of as the IBM of horse training, commanding many of the best as well as many of the less classy horses. To manage horses in various parts of the country requires management skills as well as hands-on horse training.  Duke tells us, Nihei "learned important lessons about organization and consistency."  There's more to being a trainer than just handling the horses.

When it comes to determination, do not underestimate this lady. Remember that riding three quarters of a ton horses in not quite a safe profession.  As an exercise rider for Pletcher, a filly filliped over on her, breaking "her tibia and tore all the supporting structures in a knee."

Duke tells us, "As paramedics loaded her into the ambulance, one of them told her, 'You’ll be lucky if you ever walk again. You will never ride again.'"

Did that daunt her?  Heck no! She told them, "'Watch me. Even if you cut this thing off, I will ride again.'

Leigh Hornbeck, a writer for the Saratoga Times Union, puts it in perspective after she interviewed Nihei: "She’s an exceptional person – if she wasn’t so gracious you might hate her – smart, pretty, incredibly fit."