Who is the top stakes-winning female trainer of all time?
The woman who is the answer to this trivia question shrugs off the distinction. "I don't know if that's a reflection of my ability," says Katy Voss, "or the fact that this is such a tough game for women."
Voss has won 37 stakes races, and she could add to that total on Sunday, when she saddles two starters in Maryland Million races at Pimlico. But she is right that her statistics are a dubious distinction, because thoroughbred training is a business in which few women have made inroads. A much better gauge of Voss's skill is the record of her gelding, Due North, who has been pre-entered for the $200,000 Maryland Classic.
There are plenty of other tough, durable horses entered for the races that comprise the Million, but nobody has a record to match that of Due North. The gray 8-year-old has raced 97 times, with 16 victories and 60 in-the-money finishes, and he is still good enough and sound enough to run effectively against the best horses in the state.
Voss clearly has the knack for getting a lot of mileage out of a good horse. Due North's stablemate, the mare Smart 'n Quick, has earned more than $700,000 in five years of racing. And Voss's first good horse, the great mare Twixt, won 18 stakes. But the status of women in racing is such that Voss would surely never have had the chance to train a good horse unless she had been born into the sport.
Her father, John Merryman, is a breeder and owner and a past president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. Her grandfather had been a founder of that same organization. Voss had been going to college, with no intentions of getting involved in the horse business full-time, when the family's trainer quit one summer. Voss started taking care of her father's horses.
There don't seem to be many other ways for women to break into the horse business. Even though every backstretch abounds with conscientious female grooms, and the ranks of grooms produce the trainers of the future, few women move up.
Voss theorizes, "The biggest difference is ego and ambition. The guys who work for me want to prove something. They want to be trainers. The girls like working with horses and they're proud of the job they do, but they're not as ambitious." And even if they are ambitious, Voss said, they might run into obstacles: "The people who have the money to buy horses may have a bias in favor of male trainers."
Voss overcame some of that bias as Twixt was earning more than $600,000 in a long, brilliant career, enabling the trainer to get horses from outside owners. "Twixt put me on the map," she said.
But thoroughbreds like Twixt don't come along regularly, and after the mare's retirement Voss became acquainted with the harsh facts of life of the business. She went through one painfully lean year when she won only six races.
But what distressed her even more was the economic condition of Maryland racing: "I started to understand handles and purses," she said, "and I realized that even if I were to win a lot of races I still wouldn't be making a good living. I said that if we can't change this business I've got to look for a new career."
Voss was named president of the Maryland Horse Breeders and became active in politics at about the same time that Frank De Francis had bought Laurel Race Course and was trying hard to revitalize the state's thoroughbred business. For once, the fractious elements of the horse industry worked together, gaining tax breaks from the state that triggered the dramatic revival of Maryland horse racing. This revival has attracted national attention and envy, and the Maryland Million is just one of the many manifestations of this new success and prosperity.
Due North came along at an optimal time to benefit from the boom in Maryland racing -- and also to boost her trainer's fortunes. In 1985, when the gelding was launching his career, Voss's whole stable earned a paltry $145,000. Due North has averaged winning that much money every year since. In three Classic appearances, he's finished second twice and third once.
"As a young horse," Voss said, "Due North had an attitude of 'I'm not sure that I want to do this.' But his competitive instincts eventually won out; he won a few races and gradually got more and more professional.
"He's got a magical way of going -- a fluid easy stride." That's one of the reasons she thinks he's been so durable. The other reason, she said, is the animal's common sense. "He's a smart horse and he's able to size up a race. If a horse runs up to him and they're going head and head, he'll run his guts out. But if he makes his move and another horse blows by him, he knows he can't win. He'll look over and say, 'Who am I kidding?' and he won't kill himself after that."
After 97 starts and six seasons of racing, Due North is surely entitled to take an occasional rest when he feels like it.