Rusty Arnold has been strapped into this roller coaster for more than four decades now, which makes the lack of any signs of whiplash all the more impressive.
Since the time his younger self studied his class schedule at the University of Kentucky and decided the lessons he was learning on the backstretch were more viable for his future, the veteran trainer from Paris, Ky., has spent his days on a professional journey rooted in extremes. Exceptional peaks and lows are par for the course for anyone in horse racing, so the fact Arnold has managed a career that could serve as a masterclass in consistency is a badge he bears with honor.
He has won at least 20 races a year from 1980 on. There has been only a single year since 1985 that his barn hasn’t earned more than $1 million and, if you studied his list of clients in 1989, 1999, 2009 and now, multiple names remain steadfast throughout.
“I’ve had a few down years, but I’m proud that I’ve made it 40-something years now and been fairly consistent,” Arnold said, adding with a grin, “and I’m still there. I’m still there. I’m never going to have the numbers that the people who have 200 horses have. But if you look at our numbers, our earnings per start is very good. We feel good about it.”
At the start of 2019, Arnold, 64, figured he was in for more of the same. He had his usual slate of talented runners and, if all went as expected, a pleasant surprise or two would pop into the fray.
What he didn’t go so far as to predict was the fact he would punch Father Time in the mouth by compiling some of his best-ever statistics. His more than $3.6 million in earnings this year is a career high, and his six graded stakes victories are two shy of matching his single-season best.
More than 40 years after saddling his first career winner, Arnold is still flexing his skill set. And if the renewed momentum his stable has gained continues to hold form, one of the biggest milestones of his career could be coming down the pike.
A first career victory in a Breeders’ Cup World Championships race would add a deserved bit of shine to the stout resume of one of Kentucky’s mainstay horsemen.
When Jim and Susan Hill’s Totally Boss won the $700,000, Grade 3 Runhappy Turf Sprint Stakes at Kentucky Downs on Sept. 7, the Street Boss gelding not only earned a spot in the gate for Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Santa Anita Park, he gave Arnold one of the most live contenders he’s ever brought to this stage. Such is the strength of his barn this year that Arnold has multiple shots to fire in the 5-furlong event as Leinster is set to join Totally Boss in pursuit of the $1 million prize.
Totally Boss is a nose from being unbeaten in five starts this year, gaining his first stakes victory in Ellis Park’s Kentucky Downs Preview Turf Sprint while racing at all four Kentucky tracks with turf courses. Leinster won Saratoga’s Grade 3 Troy Stakes, was third to his stablemate at Kentucky Downs and most recently a close second in Keeneland’s Grade 2 Woodford.
Totally Boss is the 5-1 co-second choice Saturday behind morning-line favorite Eddie Haskell at 9-2. Leinster drew odds of 8-1 in a full field of 14.
Arnold trains one additional Breeders’ Cup hopeful. The maiden Gear Jockey, who finished third in Keeneland’s Dixiana Bourbon this fall, races in the Juvenile Turf on Friday at odds of 20-1.
For better or worse, a horseman’s success in the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races is often used as a measuring stick. John Sadler lived it until Accelerate won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to give his trainer his first victory in the world championships with his 45th starter, and even the late Bobby Frankel’s Hall of Fame stature didn’t make him immune to hearing about his 0-for-38 Breeders’ Cup record until Squirtle Squirt broke through in the 2001 Sprint.
Though he has saddled 10 prior Breeders’ Cup starters, Arnold hasn’t made the year-end event — or the classics — the end all, be all focus of his program. “Old school” is the common refrain used when discussing the patient way the Kentucky native brings his charges along; and while he embraces that label, Arnold doesn’t downplay how significant it would be if he could knock off one of racing’s glamour goals.
“I’d like to win one. I feel like if you follow golf, I’m the journeyman golfer who hasn’t won a major,” Arnold said. “Who has done the best in the business who hasn’t won a major? I’m in the top 40 of all time in earnings and I’ve won plenty of Grade 1s but I haven’t won a Triple Crown race and I haven’t won a Breeders’ Cup race. Will I die if I don’t? No. But I’d have to admit. … I’d really like to put one on my resume.”
‘Do right by everyone’
Big-race hardware may be treasured, but the ability to improve one’s craft decades into the process is also revered. By simultaneously staying true to his philosophies while adjusting to the sport’s changing landscape, Arnold has done just that thanks in part to high-end clients whose trust he has earned, and the quality stock they keep trusting him to hone.
Before he officially became a third-generation horseman, Arnold was enrolled at the University of Kentucky with designs on becoming a veterinarian. After 2 1/2 years on that path, he took a semester off to go gallop horses in Florida, where his affection for the racetrack life overtook the grind of academia.
Bo Bromagen, racing manager for Ashbrook Farm, which has had a long-running relationship with Arnold, explained why the venerable trainer has stood the test of time.
“I actually worked for Rusty for about a year and a half and during a Saratoga meet — we were having a real bad meet — and I remember asking him, ‘When we’re running bad here, how do we do things differently? How do we change things up so we can start winning races?’” Bromagen recalled. “He said, ‘That’s not really what you do. You stick to your principles and you keep going with what you’ve always been doing and sometimes there are going to be these down times. But just you do what you do and it will come back around.’ He just has this attitude of treat the horse well, do right by everyone, and it will come in waves.
“He’s a hell of a trainer, a hell of a horseman.”
And after decades of operating in an environment designed to tax even the strongest, Arnold’s way of doing things has never looked better.
“Things happen and people move on in our business, but you don’t get your feelings hurt,” Arnold said. “You show up every day and you work hard and you think you do a good job. And then you just try to get lucky.”
Alicia Hughes is the director of NTRA Communications and a former turf writer for The Blood-Horse and the Herald-Leader.
2019 Breeders’ Cup
What: World Championships of horse racing, including 14 races over two days.
When: Friday and Saturday
Where: Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
Breeders’ Cup schedule
At Santa Anita Park
(All times Eastern and p.m.)
4:12: Juvenile Turf Sprint
4:52: Juvenile Turf
5:32: Juvenile Fillies
6:12: Juvenile Fillies Turf
2:55: Filly & Mare Sprint
3:33: Turf Sprint
4:10: Dirt Mile
4:54: Filly & Mare Turf