Pulling into the gravel parking area adjacent to Perfect Sky II barn, I spy Leigh Delacour trying to sweet-talk a young racehorse onto a shipping van. The chestnut filly is rather reluctant to load, but then acquiesces and strides up the ramp into the vehicle.
“I’ll be back in 15 minutes,” she shouts from inside the van as it kicks up a cloud of dust. “We need to take her for a spin to get her used to the traveling game. Arnaud is over there.”
That would be Leigh’s husband, Frenchman Arnaud Delacour. The couple operates a public stable of about 35 horses at the Fair Hill Training Center housed in Earl Mack’s barn, a handsome structure with expansive polished wood stalls. The barn is lit by shafts of pale morning sunlight as the last colt trots back from his morning exercise. As we walk along Arnaud’s eyes dart about scrutinizing each horse.
The brightest star in the barn is the 4-year-old Empire Maker filly Supreme. She has done little wrong in seven career starts, scoring four wins along with three seconds. Owned by Issam M. Fares, the owner of Fares Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, Supreme won her first stakes race at Colonial Downs on the turf, rallying outside in the stretch to capture the $50,000 Buckland by a half-length on June 25.
On Preakness Day at Pimlico in the $75,000 Very One Stakes, Supreme closed with a determined late rush and just missed catching Suzzona by a neck. She was shooting for the first graded stakes victory of her career in the Grade III $189,590 Royal North Stakes at Woodbine Racecourse on August 1. In a hotly contested stretch run Jenny's So Great surged to take the lead from the Delacour filly,winning the Royal North by two lengths.
“When she came to us due to some physical setbacks she hadn’t raced at two,” notes Leigh, 30. “Still, it was evident that she was a talented filly. “She won her first start easily on dirt, but we switched her to kinder turf with an aim of extending her racing career. She was even better on turf, showing quite a turn of foot. She is the nicest, friendliest horse, when little kids visit the barn they all get to pet her. We’re looking for a good spot to run her in early to mid-September.”
The Delacours made front page racing news in July when Roy and Gretchen Jackson announced they were transferring a string of their Lael Stables horses from Michael Matz’s barn to the Delacours’ a couple of furlongs away at Fair Hill. Headlining the move were Nicanor and Lentenor-- full brothers to the iconic Barbaro—as well as a few mid-range older horses and a couple of the Jacksons’ 2-year olds.
Nicanor has won four times, but in July he was evaluated at New Bolton Center and the recommendation was for three months rest. If all goes well the 5-year old horse could be racing later in the fall. As for Lentenor, racing out of the Delacours’ barn the 4-year old rolled home a winner in an allowance race at Philadelphia Park on July 31.
“Lenny is a little feisty, but he’s more nervous than aggressive,” says Leigh, who used to gallop Le Ville Rouge (Barbaro brothers’ dam). “Right now we’re trying to get a read on the preferred surface, distance and build some racing momentum. We’ll talk with the Jacksons about possibly entering him in a stakes race next time out.”
“The Jacksons approached us this summer,” says Arnaud, 35. “It’s a great opportunity. They have some very well bred, nice horses. It’s an honor to work with that caliber of horses and owners.”
The couple originally met the Jacksons when they worked with Euro-style trainers Graham Motion and Christophe Clement. The Jacksons currently have the Grade-1 winner filly Check the Label with Motion.
“We had horses with Christophe for a period of time and got to know Arnaud,” Gretchen Jackson relates. “We break horses with John Stevens in Ocala and he is close to Arnaud as well. We love being at Fair Hill, it has so much to offer and there is the equine clinic and the constant care. It’s so close to our home we can shoot down on Saturday mornings. We tend to move around with trainers, get a fresh eye.
“We found Leigh and Arnaud to be meticulous with their care and training, very detailed and organized. Leigh is so naturally bright, an accomplished rider and a good horse person. She can easily express what she sees and does with each horse. That is a real gift.”
Changing trainers is part of the racing game. The Delacours experienced the other end of the stick back in April when promising 3-year old filly Her Smile was sold to celebrity chef Bobby Flay and sent to mega-trainer Todd Pletcher. Owned by her breeder, William Backer, the Virginia-bred had finished a game second in the Comely Lass Stakes on the Wood Memorial undercard at Aqueduct racetrack. Under the Delacours’ tutelage Her Smile won three of seven starts and earned $126,360.
“We had taken our time bringing her along,” says Arnaud. “But at the end of the day we train for our owners and we do what they want.”
A native of Normandy, Arnaud was introduced to the racing game as a youngster at his family farm, with lay-ups and mares. He went on to work as an assistant for Alain de Royer-Dupre who trained for the legendary Aga Khan at the famed thoroughbred training site of Chantilly. By the late 1990s Arnaud was spending his mornings as a rider for top-flight turf French trainer Christophe Clement. He broadened his horsemanship further when he traveled to Argentina becoming an assistant trainer for a year before returning as an assistant for Clement, mainly at tracks in southern California.
Born and raised in Annapolis, Md., Leigh Offutt first got involved with pony racing and tagged along with her father foxhunting at the Marlborough Hunt Club. By age 11, Leigh was competing in point-to-points and then she started galloping horses in the morning at a training center in Davidsonville, Md. Christy Clagett of the Larking Hill Training Center in Maryland encouraged her to follow her dream.
“She told me to go down to Laurel and talk with Graham (Motion),” recalls Delacour, who was 16 at the time. “Back then he had a small string of nine horses. Everyone was part of the team. I was so excited I couldn’t eat breakfast in the mornings. I was breezing horses in company. I was so lucky to get that opportunity and as Graham’s barn grew so did my responsibilities.
“I spent three weeks at Gulfstream Park during the Christmas holidays. I learned so much horsemanship. Not really taught, just watching and gaining experience. In the mornings I exercised horses with some really good riders and that made my riding skills better.”
Leigh attended the University of Virginia but spent every weekend galloping horses for Motion at Laurel. At age 18 Barry Wiseman gave her a gelding named Humbucker to train and Motion allowed Leigh to work out of his barn.
“Won a maiden claimer and we hit the board a couple of other times,” Leigh notes. “The success came from being within Graham’s basic structure, his methods and philosophies. Graham has a great generosity and personality.”
She graduated from the University of Virginia with degrees in biology and economics.
“The diplomas are hanging in my mom’s laundry room,” says Leigh with a burst of laughter.
After losing her status as an apprentice rider, she contacted Motion, securing a position as a traveling assistant overseeing the trainer’s runners everywhere from Canada to California.
“I was 22 and taking young horses to Keeneland and Saratoga and working with champions like Better Talk Now and Film Maker,” Leigh recalls. “To be part of that magic was really special.”
Leigh and Arnaud were introduced to each other by Motion and his wife Anita. The couple was married in 2007, and struck out on their own with two horses in Michael Moran’s Fair Hill barn. Within a few months Cot Campbell’s Dogwood Stable sent five horses. As Motion and Clement stock overflowed, more runners arrived at the Delacour barn.
Early on their first stakes-placed horse was Jacob’s Run. A Grade-III placed filly from France, Mary Louheane won an allowance at Delaware Park and was stakes placed at Tampa Bay racetrack. Their first stakes winner was Fareena who scored in the Denise Rhudy Memorial Stakes at Woodbine in Canada in 2008. Last year Gary Chervenell’s Joharmony swept to victory in the $70,000 Hilltop Stakes, contested at 1-1/16 miles over the turf at Pimlico Race Course.
Winners out of the barn this summer include, Nefertiti, Professor Plum, Joharmony, Hobo Ridge, Ask Me Anything, Coin of the Realm and Mitigate. Leigh rides five or six horses in the morning and employs another five riders. The couple’s growing success doesn’t leave much time for outside activities.
“My family calls me the ‘dairy farmer’ because I miss all the holidays and family parties and events,” says Leigh. “We’re just so devoted. Arnaud and I are happy with the number and caliber of our stock so there are no ambitions to get any bigger.”
The stable has improved each season, winning ten races in 2007, then 19 in 2008. In 2009 they scored with 27 victories with earnings of $467,598 and 50 wins and $910,110 in earnings last year. Through August 10th the barn has notched 23 wins (23-22-20) with earnings of $602,607.
MBA in Racing
“We like to say that we’ve got a Harvard MBA in horseracing since we were inside the training operations of Graham and Christophe,” says Leigh with a half smile. “We gained so much knowledge and confidence, that experience was invaluable.
“We love the animals so our goal is quality, not quantity. When we push forward in our program if a horse can’t keep up we take it slower. If we need to jog a horse for a week, so be it. We’ll pull back a bit, or in some cases stop. If the horse needs a break to develop we give them time. We saw this over and over with Graham and Christophe. Take your time.”
For the past few years during the winter season the couple has taken their outfit down to Tampa Bay Downs. Like the European training style they emulate, their horses are trained to settle early then come with a big run in the stretch. Box Office Queen, Supreme and Her Smile were the headliners in their barn last winter at Tampa.
In 2008 Leigh was the fourth leading trainer at Tampa. In February 2010 she was tabbed Flame Stone Trainer of the Month with four wins and two runners-up from nine starts. Over the 2009-10 meet she produced an impressive 30 percent win rate.
“Horses get over the track very well,” Leigh explains. “The track has a sandy, thick base that isn’t too deep and they put a good amount of water on it to keep it tight. We have fewer soundness problems than at other tracks. Our horses come back north with a very good foundation for the spring and summer. We think they are 30 to 60 days ahead than if they would have spent the winter up here. When they hit Fair Hill they look great, coats dappled.”
A thriving training center that claims a pair of Kentucky Derby winners over the past five years, Fair Hill offers a one-mile dirt track, a 7/8-mile synthetic Tapeta track and a 7/8-mile turf course at the historic steeplechase course. Spirited thoroughbreds can turn it down several notches when hacking across the rolling cross-country trails that fan off into hardwood forests and open fields.
“We have a Pulpit filly that was barely manageable and we took her out to hack in the back meadows to relax and wander around for awhile,” says Leigh, standing and gesturing to a distant open field. “It changed the filly’s mind. It’s a superlative place to train racehorses. We are so fortunate.”
Leigh is also the newest generation in the Jonathan Sheppard “tree of trainers.” The Chester County, Pa. Hall of Famer counts Janet Elliot, a fellow Hall of Famer, Barclay Tagg, who conditioned ’2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide, and Motion, trainer of 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom and two-time Breeders’ Cup champions Better Talk Now and Shared Account, as former assistants, who then passed his methods and philosophies.
"I know him to say hello, but haven’t had a chance to really sit and talk with Jonathan,” Leigh acknowledges. “I know when we are in against Jonathan in a race, it’s ‘Aw, shucks.’ His horses are what Arnaud and I aspire to if we get lucky one day before we retire.”