Karyn Phillip, Versatility and Vision

August 10, 2020

Dream job keeps Phillip focused.

 If you find your passion it’s not as if you’re really working. 

And for horsewoman Karyn Phillip, there never seemed to be in any doubt that she would be spending the rest of her life around horses and in the barn. 

Need for Speed 

Phillip grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York, not too far from the racetrack in Canandaigua, a place where she was first introduced to equestrian sport, where she learned about being a horseman by participating in equitation, western pleasure and showmanship. 

“I had show horses all my life as a kid growing up, and when I got out of college, I wanted to go to the racetrack,” said Phillip. “So, I took the equine program at Cazenovia College.”

However, fate would find Phillip becoming a groom at Finger Lakes, and she would eventually transition into a new vocation that of an exercise rider, and then for nearly a decade as a jockey. 

“I like to go fast,” said Phillip. 

But the transition from the show world to the racetrack was one with its own set of challenges, as Phillip would soon find out. 

“When I first started galloping, they’d all run off with me because it’s a totally different type of riding,” said Phillip. “You think you’re a good rider until you get on a racehorse. I was lucky I had a trainer who if the horse would run off with me, he would give them back to me the next day, until I was able to figure them out. And then he would give me a tougher one the following day.”

Building the Foundation 

Those early lessons played a critical role in Phillip’s success. She’s always enjoyed the psychological aspect of getting inside the horses’ heads. Barn life and Thoroughbred racing are synonymous with Phillip, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“I’ve always been a morning person,” said Phillip. “It’s exciting to go in. The galloping is the best job in the world, just being an exercise rider, from six-to-11. And then you have the rest of the day for yourself.”

Phillip’s early foundation as a horseman played a part in her evolution. 

“You get to know the horses and work around them,” said Phillip. “The way they behave when you’re on their back, you can feel what they’re thinking (laughing) most of the time.”

Counsel and Advice 

The opportunity to compete as a member of the jockey colony at Finger Lakes was an experience in itself, with Phillip riding against a number of talented journeymen, who were legends at the upstate New York racetrack, including Dennis Saul, Les Hulet and John Grabowski. 

“They were all good,” said Phillip. “Michelle Harris and Donna Doxey were riding about the same time that I was. The girls’ room was down the hall, and there were no windows. It was dark. We pretty much took naps all day. They were very helpful. Mike McCarthy was a big help to me. He had an Equcizer. He had me over and helped me with that, and watched the replays of my races. They (members of the Finger Lakes jockey colony) were all very helpful.”

Being a professional athlete has its benefits, and receiving exposure from your particular vocation goes along with the territory, one year Phillip had the distinction of being the first woman to ride a race at Saratoga Race Course

“They all treated me like I was Julie Krone,” said Phillip. “I think I was a bug rider at the time. They interviewed me because I happened to be the first female to ride that year. So, that was kind of a highlight.”

Precious Memories 

The miracle of birth can make an indelible imprint. It was while Phillip was in college that a unique experience would have a lasting impact, one that would resonate far more deeply than one could’ve ever imagined. 

“I was in college and had an internship working at a breeding farm and the first foal I ever saw born, ended up with Pete and Sharyn Wasiluk as a 2-year-old,” said Phillip. The filly was bred and owned by Maureen Schatzberg. “I got to ride her. Her name was Sweet Lily. I got to ride her in her first race and she won by 20 lengths. I also had the opportunity to ride her in the Finger Lady Stakes.”

A Respite from the Races 

Phillip would transition back from being a jockey to galloping, and eventually would step away from the sport. 

“I was getting older, and knock on wood, I had never broken any bones or gotten hurt,” said Phillip, who would also transition for a time to the west coast to gallop for trainer Peter Miller. “I did stop for 10 years and had a show horse at the same time. You can’t go to horse shows and be at the racetrack. I opened up a dog grooming shop for 10 years.”

Return to a familiar environment

But as fate would have it, the closing of the dog grooming business proved to be a propitious event for Phillip, who was seeing trainer John Buckley at the time. She went back to galloping for him at Finger Lakes, and the end of their relationship led to the start of a new vocation at the racetrack. 

“So, when I broke up with him, I needed a job,” said Phillip. “The outrider got hurt. The job came with health insurance, so I said, ‘I’ll do that.’”

However, the job had its own set of challenges. 

“I was stuck up on the training track, there’s no bathroom up there, they don’t let you leave, and you’re up there for five or six hours,” said Phillip. “I said, ‘I can’t keep doing this.’ They won’t let you go down and do the main track.”

But Phillip quickly landed on her feet. A friend, who was working for trainer Karl Grusmark, mentioned that her exercise rider wasn’t working out to well, and that she was looking for someone to fill that role, providing Phillip with another opportunity. 

“I gave my two weeks-notice and went back to galloping,” said Phillip. 

Winter Wonderland 

Phillip is no stranger to cooler weather having grown up in the area near Finger Lakes. 

“Galloping is a wonderful job, except in the snow, but I didn’t complain because we chose to do it,” said Phillip. “We chose to be an exercise rider. If it started snowing, we started singing Christmas songs.”

Florida State of Mind

The versatile horseman started to come to Ocala during the winters, with Jack Lambert and Star Trek Farm, and would go back and forth between the two locales. So, when it became time shift her base of operation from Finger Lakes to Marion County, Florida, she was already familiar with the area. 

“I hate the cold weather, so I came down here (Ocala),” said Phillip. “I got lucky. I found a house on line. I had friends find it. Craig Faine (former jockey who rode at Finger Lakes) is down here. He took me around and showed me all the different places, Nick de Meric’s, Eddie Woods’, Niall Brennan’s…I went out in my car on Monday and stopped at every place. That afternoon, both Niall and Bridlewood Farm called me back to give me a gallop job, and they’re right around the corner from my house. Niall called first. He’s really good to work for. I was there for four years.”

Hanging out Her own shingle 

However, Phillip continues to evolve as a horsewoman, and she started a partnership with Gilberto Laiz, breaking babies and consigning babies at the sales. 

“We ended up with too many of our own, it was too much galloping at the same time,” said Phillip. “Our business is going pretty good. We have 17.”

A fortuitous experience became a propitious one, and in doing so allowed Phillip to take out her trainer’s license. It would also provide her with her first victory as a Thoroughbred conditioner. 

“It was just a fluke,” said Phillip. “We had a filly with an OCD in her stifle. She was sound and training good. Every time someone would vet her, they wouldn’t buy her because of that. So, I said, ‘Gil, let’s just run her.’ She seems like a nice filly. It was Snow Forecast (laughing). And even now, we’re mainly focused on breaking the babies. We have picked up a couple of clients along the way.”

Mardi Gras Girl is another filly trained by Phillip that has also found the winner’s circle. She had previously been in the barn of Bo Yates. Mardi Gras Girl is a Florida-bred by Cajun Breeze, out of the Montbrook mare Girls Night out. 

“She was just a little off behind,” said Phillip. “I couldn’t get a good video of her. I said, ‘Gil, ask him if he’ll give her some more time off, and let us have her, and if we do good, he’ll get breeders’ awards. We ended up getting her for free (laughing). “

Hire Wire Act

In her new role, Phillip faces a different set of responsibilities. Staying focused and maintaining stability are cardinal for the success of the operation. 

“It’s very challenging, especially mentally,” said Phillip. “That’s what I tell Gil, and Gil is just galloping babies. I tell him, ‘We have clients with 2-year-olds coming up that are going to run.’ I had to look at two condition books (Gulfstream and the recently concluded Tampa Bay Downs meet). It’s not like being a trainer at the racetrack, where you just walk in; you have your horses and your help, your book and your races. I have to figure out when the sales dates are, when they have to go in, what days they have to prep, and at the same time get the horses to Tampa or Gulfstream. It’s very challenging for me to try to keep in order.”

Respite and Recharge 

When Phillip does a have a spare moment, she stays busy with activities she enjoys to take her mind off her hectic schedule and the frenetic pace of the Thoroughbred industry.

“I take my dogs hiking a lot in the afternoons,” said Phillip. “I enjoy cooking. I’ll go home and make an elaborate meal because I’m relaxing for myself. I get my glass of wine and make my dinner. That’s peaceful for me at the end of the day. I have three dogs, and I’ll take them out to Silver Springs State Park if I have a moment to do that.”

Passion and Perspective

The opportunity to become immersed in the Thoroughbred industry is a choice that Phillip hardly regrets. She’s well-suited to the lifestyle that has allowed her to evolve in more ways than just being a horsewoman. 

“I enjoy it; it’s not really work to me,” said Phillip. “I actually rented a house right by our barn at the training center where we’re at. It’s nice to be able to walk to the barn (laughing). I enjoy being around the barn and horses. Some days, you wish you could just take off to the beach or something, but you don’t have time for it.” 

By Ben Baugh

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