After getting a college degree in kinesiology, Jeff Metz spent three years teaching and coaching. Humans.
But he was drawn back to an earlier love, training horses.
“They don’t talk back as much,” Metz said of his equine athletes.
And they certainly respond well to his coaching.
Metz opens defense of his Emerald Downs training crown this afternoon at 2, when the track begins its 19th season.
He’ll have entrants in seven of the 10 opening-day races (nine horses overall). And, characteristically, he’ll have horses going in races of just about every level of competition.
Metz saddled 42 winners last year, from $2,500 claimers to Washington Horse of the Year E Z Kitty.
It’s a strategy that allowed him to break the stranglehold on the trainer title exerted by Tim McCanna or Frank Lucarelli.
Metz led a cavalry charge of trainees to the Pacific Northwest for the first time last season as his 30-horse stable helped the track fill the barns and the race cards.
“I was looking for somewhere to go ... where a fresh face was most needed or wanted and could have success,” the 46-year-old Metz said this week. “So I knew Washington hadn’t had any new blood, trainer-wise, in the last five or six years. I thought, they could use the horses, and the group I had, I thought, fit good at that track.”
His concern for the success of the racing industry is understandable; his entire family is in the business. His wife, Jennifer, is a clocker at Santa Anita; daughter Zoe (18) works in the marketing department there, and son Josh (16) is working on his license to be an exercise rider.
“The racing game itself is losing horses and owners and what have you, but you can keep cultivating it as much as you can,” Metz said. “I do that by bringing new (owners) into the racing game, whether it be in Arizona, California or Washington.”
Metz caught the racing bug at 14 on a trip to Del Mar (Calif.) when he watched riders and trainers busy at their morning workouts. At 16, he got his license as an exercise rider.
As assistant to a number of trainers, he culled and collected techniques he’d use when he put together his own stable.
And from his study of kinesiology, he developed an eye for the mechanics of athletic movement. As it turns out, it translates to his equine team.
“I think an athlete is an athlete,” he said. “Horses have different gaits; when they trot they move one way and when they gallop it’s another. You want to make sure they’re smooth throughout. And (you try) to see if they’re a little off, or if they’re off a little bit from the day before. (Then) we jog them, flex them and check for heat. Those are the little things we try to diagnose.”
As he would with humans, Metz works to nurture the mental state of his horses; preparing them, building confidence, and making certain they’re at the right level of competition.
Jockey Anne Sanguinetti, who rode 26 winners for Metz last season, including E Z Kitty, explains Metz’s strengths.
“Jeff’s adaptable; I think that’s the biggest thing,” Sanguinetti said. “He’s very perceptive of the horses. He’s able to look at the situation he’s in and make a plan for the horses based on its situation. He focuses on making the horse happy.”
Making the horse happy?
“Well, if you’re willing to look at the individual and see what it likes to do rather than making all the horses do the same thing,” she said. “They have personalities, like people, so you almost have to be a horsey psychologist.”
The very direct correlation between the rewards of coaching kids and horses comes in the enjoyment of the competition.
“That’s the thing about this industry, it’s the love of the horses and the excitement of winning,” Metz said. “When you win a horse race, it’s like your son hitting a home run in the championship game. It’s that kind of feeling.”
Metz grants that thoroughbred ownership doesn’t pencil out for everybody. But it can be uniquely exhilarating.
“If you go to the winners’ circle and hang out there all day, you won’t find a happier group of people,” he said. “Winning is addictive.”
Apparently, it’s an addiction understood by all competitors – regardless of species.