By Alicia Hughes
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Rusty Arnold has been strapped into this roller coaster for more than four decades now, which makes the lack of any outward 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 has spent his days on a professional journey rooted in extremes. Exceptional peaks and lows are par for the course for anyone who makes their vocation in horse racing, so the fact Arnold has managed to carve out a career that could serve as a masterclass in consistency is a badge he rightfully bears with honor.
He has won at least 20 races a year every season from 1980 on. There has been only a single year since 1985 that his barn hasn’t notched more than $1 million in earnings and, if you studied his list of clients in 1989 and 1999 and 2009 and now, there are multiple names that 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 figured he was in for more of the same – which, as his record attests, is pretty darn good. He had his usual slate of talented runners to hang his aspirations on 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 already a career high and his six graded stakes victories to date are two shy from matching his single-season best.
More than 40 years after saddling his first career winner, Arnold is still flexing his skillset with authority. 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.
Arnold’s reputation is something that certainly doesn’t need any added polishing. That said, 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 prevailed in the $700,000 Grade 3 RUNHAPPY Turf Sprint Stakes at Kentucky Downs on Sept. 7, the Street Boss gelding not only locked himself into a spot in the gate for the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 2, he gave Arnold the distinction of having one of the most live contenders he’s ever brought to this stage. Such is the strength of his barn this year that Arnold actually has multiple shots to fire in the five-furlong event as Leinster is also set to join Totally Boss in the entry box to chase the $1 million prize.
Totally Boss is a nose from being unbeaten in five starts this year, which include gaining his first stakes victory in Ellis Park’s Kentucky Downs Preview Turf Sprint. Leinster won Saratoga’s Grade 3 Troy Stakes, was third in Kentucky Downs’ RUNHAPPY Turf Sprint and a close second in Keeneland’s Grade 2 Woodford.
For better or worse, a horseman’s success or lack thereof in the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races is often used as a measuring stick when determining where they rank among their elite peers.
John Sadler lived it until Accelerate took last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to give his conditioner 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 got him off the duck 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.”
Big-race hardware may be treasured, but the ability to improve one’s craft decades into the process is most 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 horsemen, 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.
“My dad had a farm here in Lexington and … he made the mistake one summer of letting me get to the racetrack and I fell in love,” said Arnold, whose grandfather James Russell was the broodmare foreman at Elmendorf Farm and whose father, the late George R. Arnold Sr., co-owned Fair Acres Farm. “Probably I was already about 16 at the time. I went to UK with the original thought of being a veterinarian but I wasn’t smart enough or dedicated enough to be a veterinarian … and I never went back to school.”
Instead, he went out on his own by the mid 1970s and headed to New York a handful of years later where he took up a division for the storied Loblolly Farm. His time on the East Coast allowed him to prove himself on an elite circuit with his first Grade 1 win coming when he saddled Wavering Monarch to victory in the 1982 Haskell Invitational. More importantly, he earned the loyalty of owners who are still pushing him to his greatest heights to this day.
There are generations that have been born in the time that Arnold has counted G. Watts Humphrey Jr. and the Bromagen family as clients, with both relationships spanning the better part of three decades. It was Humphrey who helped urge his longtime trainer to return to Kentucky full time in 2008 to take advantage of the upswings of the racing program in his home state. The list of graduates that have carried them to shared glory include Grade 1 winners Centre Court and Romantic Vision as well as their most recent stalwart, multiple graded-stakes winner Morticia.
Glenn Bromagen of Ashbrook Farm first began working with Arnold in 1983 and when he decided in 2007 to end his hiatus from racing, the venerable trainer was whom Bromagen entrusted to get him back in the game the right way. Together, they have struck gold with the likes of top-level performers Wicked Style and Weep No More. But it was the exploits of Grade 1 winner Concrete Rose this year that gave the pairing legitimate claim to one of the nation’s best sophomore runners of either sex.
Prior to being sidelined due to a hairline fracture in her right foreleg, Concrete Rose won all four of her outings in 2019, including the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks and $750,000 Saratoga Oaks Invitational, with her only blemish from seven career starts being an eighth-place run in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. In watching Arnold mold the daughter of Twirling Candy from a 2-year-old who got by on raw talent into a sophomore who developed a competitive mind to match her ability, the Bromagen clan was reminded just why their relationship has defied the fickle nature of the industry.
“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?’” said Bo Bromagen, son of Glenn and racing manager for Ashbrook Farm. “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 been doing it for 40-something years. He knows what works, he knows horses and he has the self-confidence to make the right decisions. Rusty doesn’t need a good horse like (Concrete Rose) to validate his career. He’s a hell of a trainer, a hell of a horseman.”
The beauty of having such a substantiated track record is you can let it speak for itself, and Arnold’s accomplishments have been repeating themselves for years. His core tactics haven’t changed. His standards never dipped. And after decades of operating in an environment designed to tax even the strongest, his way of doing things has never looked better.
“Things happen and people move on and 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.”
Notes: With Florent Geroux sustaining a fractured sternum in a training mishap, Jose Ortiz will ride Totally Boss in the Breeders’ Cup, Arnold said. Leinster will have regular rider Tyler Gaffalione.
Alicia Hughes is the director of NTRA Communications and a former turf writer for The Blood-Horse and Lexington Herald-Leader.