While most 18-year-olds spent the Thanksgiving weekend either over-eating, sleeping late, binge-watching television, hanging out with their friends or a combination of all four, budding thoroughbred trainer Rylee Grudzien spent her holiday as she does every day — rising before the sun and overseeing her string of eight runners currently based at Delta Downs in Vinton, Louisiana. While some of her peers would likely say her choices are nuts for an 18-year-old with an entire life of responsibility still ahead, the young conditioner actually believes she’s already living a dream and her decisions are well worth any sacrifices some think she may be making.
“I get it, it is atypical for someone my age,” Grudzien said, her obvious maturity belying her 18 trips around the sun so far. “But the only thing you can do is win, because wins are wins and they speak loudly. I just keep my head down, work hard and stay humble and focus on the horses.”
So far, Grudzien’s commitment to her career has paid off in spades, as she’s rather easily checked off a record of two wins and a second from just three starters since taking out her license in October, her victories coming from the first two horses she ever tightened the girth on. She is also the owner of both her runners so far, with half of her current barn occupants owned by her and the other half by outside clients. And the client base is growing, she says, thanks mostly to the support from her fellow racetrackers.
“The good news is that I’ve known most of these people [at the racetrack] for a very long time,” Grudzien said. “They’ve all been great and it’s pretty nice to have support like that. The fact that everyone is so nice has been like a breath of fresh air.”
A Racing Pedigree, A Childhood Idol
It is not an exaggeration to say Grudzien was born into the horse world and into racing. She is the daughter of Jason, a trainer-turned-clocker-turned-racing-official-turned-trainer-again and also Renee, a racetrack veterinarian. She spent much of her childhood on the backside of racetracks in both her native New England and, now, Louisiana, which she’s called home since she was a little girl. She rode as a child too and, like the sponge most children are, she soaked up everything about racing she could.
“I rode a little bit, little rodeos and stuff,” Grudzien, who is an only child, said. “But I was at the racetrack with my family all the time and we did it all ourselves. I loved racing and horses.”
Even as a young girl, she clung to the plight of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and joined the masses of fans as he valiantly fought for life after being pulled up with an injury in the Preakness Stakes. And she also followed the careers of many of the recent greats, including two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and female superstars Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.
But as much of a fan as she was of the big names commanding the spotlight, there was one barn she considered very special and a motivating factor in her current career as a trainer. Certainly well known and successful, this particular operation was one that stood out in a sea of outstanding outfits.
“A few years ago I was at Gulfstream Park with my family and I saw some of Cristophe Clement’s horses,” Grudzien remembers. “Every one looked perfect, they were in perfect weight and their coats were amazing; I was in awe of how good they looked.
“[When I got home] I went to [Clement’s] website and emailed him for advice. I’ll never forget his reply, either. Basically, he said to be good to everyone because that way you will never have bad blood. And he said to always be good to the horses because it will come back to you and they will do well for you. What he said really stuck with me and hit home — and I’m super grateful he replied.”
The American-based Frenchman shares one significant milestone with the young trainer. He also won with his very first starter when he went out on his own back in 1991.
“He’s always been someone to look up to for me, from a motivation standpoint,” Grudzien said. “He’s like my baseline, I use him a lot. I like all the European-style things, I follow the foreign horses like Roaring Lion and Winx and runners like that. And I also bang the tails at the bottom, European-style, like [Clement] does.”
Protecting the Future
One thing Grudzien is happy to discuss is proper aftercare for all thoroughbreds, but especially hers and her family’s.
“We do a lot [for aftercare],” Grudzien said. “As much as you can, you try to not get too attached, but you do. So, that’s why I could never give one away without knowing where they’re going and keeping contact with the people who take them. A couple of ours have become hunter/jumpers in North Carolina and they send me pictures all the time. We owe it to them — I mean, these horses are doing it for us. They don’t tack themselves up and walk out there and race for themselves. They do it because we ask them to.
“Lately the NTWO [National Thoroughbred Welfare Organization] has been here and they have fliers everywhere, they are doing such a great job. You can call them and tell them to come get a horse and they will. I know there have been some problems, but it’s mostly been cultural and things are getting better. These aren’t bad people here, this is just what they did. And they are taking baby steps, but it is getting better.”
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Grudzien admits that, for a few years, she thought her career path would take her away from horses. She was a standout softball player in high school and recruited by several colleges before a torn labrum in her shoulder derailed those plans. But softball’s loss is most certainly racing’s gain and Grudzien acknowledges that being a part of a sports team only strengthened her belief that a solid team at the barn only makes everything better.
“I have a great team,” Grudzien says. “My dad was an assistant for [Hall of Famer] Nick Zito and he helps out a lot at the barn. He has three [horses] of his own, so we really help one another. And [jockey] Devin [Magnon], he gets on all the horses and works with them. He’s a great hand with them and rides all of my horses. And my mom is a vet, which is appealing to a lot of people and potential owners. We also have a small farm with a Eurocizer and a pool and my parents live there, but my mom is here at the track two to three times a week to go over all the horses. It’s really a great situation.”
Grudzien does reluctantly acknowledge that most parents with children her age would prefer them to be heading off to college and that, as a daughter of a veterinarian, in an ideal world she would be pursuing a career in veterinary medicine. But Grudzien explains that, in her family, those hopes take a backseat to the pride and unconditional support her parents give to her daily.
“I started college classes when I was still in high school and took some AP classes, too,” Grudzien says. “I’m sure they wanted me to go to vet school. My dad was a pre-vet student as an undergrad and got his trainer’s license at 18 and went back to school. But they knew I wanted to be a trainer. If I didn’t have their support, one thousand percent I don’t have anything I have today. It means so much to have them, their experience and knowledge is something you can’t buy.”
For now, Grudzien is just enjoying where she is in life, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a wanting eye pointed toward her future. Still nearly 12 years away from her 30th birthday, Grudzien tries to stay present and not imagine too much allowing for the fact that she’s currently living inside a pretty happy dream.
“As far as specifics, I tend to stay away from that,” Grudzien said. “I hope for things; I hope to have a sizeable stable and horses at different tracks. I mean, I think it’s just about everyone’s dream to do Gulfstream Park, Kentucky, Saratoga in the summer. I love to travel with horses and it’s exciting to think about taking horses to other places. Clearly horses are my future, but I’ll let the rest unfold as I get there.”