LOUISVILLE — After two years as a psychologist working with troubled youth, Carla Gaines decided she would take a break and deal with the equine mind.
"I wanted to get away from it for a while," said the 62-year-old trainer on Tuesday morning, standing just outside Barn 45 at Churchill Downs. "But I got bitten by the bug, as they say, and I never went back to the humanoids."
For the past 30 years it has been all Thoroughbreds for the Alabama native who is experiencing a different kind of break in the form of her first Kentucky Derby horse.
Bolo, potentially the best 3-year-old grass horse in the nation, will Saturday try for the ultimate dirt triumph.
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Third in both the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby, Bolo is considered a long shot. However, an upset would make the former psychologist the first female trainer to win the Derby.
"As a trainer, just winning the Derby would be great," said Gaines, who arrived in Louisville on Monday night, a day after her horse. "But I guess being a woman and winning the Derby for the first time, it's a milestone. I just see myself as a trainer."
She's a trainer with an unusual background. Gaines grew up in Mountain Brook, Ala., riding horses on her grandfather's farm. She rode jumpers during college at the University of Virginia and Stratford College before completing a master's degree in psychology and counseling at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Her two years working as a counselor served as a reality check. Gaines decided she needed to step back, take a deep breath and do something she loved.
With some friends, she went to Louisiana and began pinhooking, buying yearlings and selling them as 2-year-olds. Next she was galloping horses, working in sales and even dabbling in ownerships.
When she received an offer to break 2-year-olds, she "went to California with a banjo on my knee." By the late 1980s she had taken out a trainer's license with a claimer named Glory Quest.
"He won his first race at the Vallejo County Fair," Gaines said proudly.
She currently trains about 35 horses from her base at Santa Anita. Gaines has won 25 graded stakes and four Grade I races. Her first Grade I win came with Nashoba's Key, who brought Gaines attention by winning her first seven starts before finishing fourth in the 2007 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
The trainer's specialty is distance grass horses, which Bolo is expected to become. Owned by Golden Pegasus Racing and Earl Mack, the son of Temple City won the Eddie Logan on grass last December before his two third-place finishes on dirt.
Bolo wasn't fit for the San Felipe, Gaines said. A wide trip compromised his efforts in the Santa Anita Derby. "Not to take anything away from the winner of those two races," Gaines said. "Dortmund is a street fighter."
Chances to enter the Kentucky Derby don't come along often, however, so Keith Brackpool, head of Golden Pegasus, decided to bring Bolo to Louisville.
"They decided they wanted to give it a whirl," Gaines said. "Historically grass horses have taken to this surface very, very well."
Gaines would be the 14th female to train a Derby horse and the first since Jamie Sanders conditioned Teuflesberg (17th) in 2007. Shelley Riley still owns the best Derby finish thanks to Casual Lies running second to Lil E. Tee in 1992. Kristin Mulhall trained Imperalism to third in 2004.
Gaines said she has received advice from her bookkeeper, Patty Johnson, who trained Fast Account to a fourth-place finish in the 1985 Kentucky Derby.
Given Gaines' background, however, people are always asking if being a psychologist studying people's behavior can be of benefit in dealing with horses.
"I think all trainers are alike," she said Tuesday. "Horses are like people. They all have different personalities, different aspirations, ambitions. You try to discourage whatever you don't like and encourage the attribute of that particular equine athlete."
Bolo's best attribute?
"Talent," Gaines said. "He has a lot of talent."