Brent Sumja Paid His Dues

Brent Sumja Paid His Dues

I am including in the blog today a chapter from one of my earliest books about a child hood friend who took some risks, and persevered in the Horse Racing industry as a highly successful trainer

ES: What were your childhood sports memories ?

BS: I would say mostly Football, Basketball, Baseball. The so-called traditional sports of the time. Back then there were only a few select people playing soccer, tennis, golf etc…

ES: Lots of things have changed in sports since you and I were kids playing in the playground after school. Oh by the way I thought I might like to mention that my father and I both hit homeruns off you in my last year of little league.

BS: Your homerun was legitimate, but I thought I was real nice in the father-son game to lob one over the plate and let your Dad hit it. Didn’t know he was so strong !!! and since we’re bringing up 30 year old memories, next time you might want to let your Dad know the correct direction to run around the bases. If you remember correctly, he ran from Home to Third to Second, to First, and then Home. In terms of major changes to sports if you look at today’s NBA Draft for example, it’s completely loaded with players from other countries. Back in our day watching my favorites Dr. J (Julius Erving) and the Iceman (George Gervin) you never saw such an influx of European, South American, and African Players. Australia as well has made a big impact in Professional Basketball. Some of these guys have been and will continue to be top picks in the draft each year. Things have changed so much that the USA even has players going overseas to play professionally in all sports.

ES: Where did the initial transition into Horse Racing come into effect?

BS: I see that life as a Pro Golfer as something I would have enjoyed. You don’t have to be 6’4” and 200 lbs. Back in our day you played the traditional sports out in the street with your buddies till it got dark or mom called you in for dinner. Nowadays kids at 10-11 years old have personal trainers and private coaches for everything they do, and are exposed to way more options than we had.

The introduction into Horses came during my high school years. We would finish our off-season Water Polo workouts, and then a few of us would head down to Hollywood Park. Underage, but never bothered by anyone. Eventually most of the guys wore out from going, and I continued going by myself or with one guy. I saw this as something eventually I’d like to get into more seriously. I would enjoy being outside around these wonderful animals, not cooped up in an office somewhere.

ES: Did you begin you training immediately after High School.

BS: No, actually I headed to UCLA to get my education, but I found sitting in the library was a torture being disturbed all the time with people walking by the cubicles, so I used to go to Santa Anita Racetrack, bet a horse, watch the race, study for twenty-five minutes, and then repeat the process all afternoon. I could get Four to Five hours of studying done, and in addition I felt at such peace sitting by myself at the 7/8th pole on a blanket doing my work.

ES: So it was after you finished UCLA then that the training began ?

BS: It was during my senior year that a girl I knew in my father’s office had a boyfriend who owned horses, so I was invited by him one day to go in the stable area and I ended up having breakfast in the kitchen with Hall of Fame Jockey Willie Shoemaker. We also met with famed trainer Ron Ellis. I knew after 20 minutes that this was what I wanted to do. I was fascinated being in the back area, after watching from the grandstand for 6 years. It was a whole new world back there with all kinds of new business opportunities.

A short time later after announcing to my dad that I wanted to train horses for a living, he knew of a school in Louisiana that taught students in the basics of the training aspects of the business. I attended classes for about nine months, as I didn’t know a thing about horses when I first walked in there. But after those ten classes during the time there, I felt somewhat prepared when I went to the track at Louisiana Downs.

ES: You talked earlier about mentors. Is this where you found yours ?

BS: Absolutely. I was befriended by a trainer named Tom Amoss. This man took me in like a brother, and I remember spending Thanksgiving at his parents home in New Orleans less than two months after we first had met. To this day we are extremely close, and this is who I go with to the Kentucky Derby each year.

You never know in your life when the people you meet will become a new life long friend. Life is about the places you go, putting yourself out there, making connections with people. It’s always the surprise ones that come into your life when you don’t expect it, that change your life forever.

ES: I’m sure you must have had some fun times down in Mardi Gras territory?

BS: A few I can’t talk about, but my first day at Louisiana Tech, our Animal Science class was off campus and I couldn’t find it. Finally I arrive at a door and open it, and there stands the professor at the podium with about 30 students staring at me. I showed up late to class, well tanned in my flip-flop sandals, shorts, and a flowered shirt. Everyone burst out in laughter as I had just arrived the day before from my college graduation trip with my family in Hawaii. It was like I was an alien that had been dropped in. Everyone of my fellow students was in wranglers, boots, and cowboy hats

ES: How many times did self-doubt come into your mind?

BS: Quite often actually. I was in Louisiana for 3 years making about $180.00 a week, walking horses and learning to groom them. Maybe on a good week I could make $220 if a horse I had groomed got a result in a race. There were times I would walk into the lunchroom which had food for $3.00, I stood there wondering if it was something I could really afford. It crossed my mind many times if this was a profession that I could do. I was also living in a backroom at the track, as I couldn’t afford to pay any rent on my own.

ES: When did things start to change for you down there in Louisiana?

BS: It was actually when Tom sent me to Oklahoma for a meet, and as his assistant, and the fact we had twenty horses there, I got to stay in a Howard Johnson’s for a month. Compared to the back room at the track, this was like a suite at Cesar’s Palace.

I learned so much from Tom, but had to approach him one day about an opportunity that I was being offered in California. He told me to go and follow my heart if that is where I wanted to be. I was now out on my own with only two horses to speak of. One that a guy had left me, and another that I convinced a friend and his boss to buy. I was still making about $200 dollars a week, and living for free in the basement of my friend’s house. To become a trainer you need to pay your dues and start at the bottom. It’s being up at 4:00 a.m, and as an assistant you do all the work. No glory, No cash for sure, and it’s a 7 day a week gig.

ES: You have talked about the need for perseverance, and passion in the occupation of professional sports, but I’m sure at one point, things had to start going you way a little better for you to stick with it at those low wages.

BS: Well after about 6 months out on my own, I now had control of four horses, when one day a guy who was a big owner called me up. Rumors were abound that his trainer had a substance abuse problem and when his groomer called him up to inform him that the trainer had not been there for 3 days, and that the feed was running out for the horses, he offered me his twenty horses to train. I didn’t have many horses at that point, but my winning percentage was high, so he decided to give me a chance. Let me tell you that I took my one employee and we grabbed those horses faster than he could finish his sentence.

ES: Were you ready for the growth ?

BS: Not immediately but my barn grew to 30 employees and over 70 horses. I even became the first trainer to give employees a day off, which made the other owners hate me, but I was loyal to my staff and treated them well. I wanted a happy group of employees.

ES: As sports fans we all sit in front of the television watching the big races like the Kentucky Derby for example. What goes into training a horse for an event like that.

BS: That is a special event where you only have one chance to race in it, as it’s age based. These 2 year olds are pushed so hard that they usually break down by 3 and you don’t hear of a long racing career for them in most cases. For the 20 you hear of on race day at Churchill Downs, there are 4 times as many that were talented and injured in the process. To prepare for a race like that 9000 things can go wrong, but only one can go right and it’s getting them there healthy and sound. There are so many obstacles along the way from morning training, ankle swelling, foot bruises, and the travel of getting them there. Taking off on a plane and landing don’t affect them so much as they eat their hay and drink their water, but it’s when they transport them onto the plane or off, and the noise from the rollers they place under their feet scare them a little.

It’s hard to keep them together physically, which is no different than the professional athletes that are in this book, or the people who will read it dreaming of a pro career. So much goes into the preparation of an athlete from the training, diet, rest, travel accommodations etc…

ES: Through your work as a professional Horse Trainer have you had the opportunity to travel abroad to any major races?

BS: I actually attended the Golden Slipper which is the world’s richest horse race for two-year-olds held in the Easter season during the Autumn Racing Carnival in Sydney, Australia. This sport has a huge global involvement. In fact in Saudi Arabia, they have built a replica of Churchill Downs, they want to win the race so bad. I also am proud to say that I was one of the first trainers to continually go around the country buying horses and flying them to California. When I would arrive at a track like Calder in Florida, people would flock out of their barns when they saw me. I would fly in, make sure the horses were sound, and then buy up to like 12 horses.

ES: What advice or what comments do you have about the profession of becoming a Jockey.

BS: These are guys that are hungry and will do whatever work it takes to achieve getting there. A person has to be fearless. These are athletes of 112 lbs riding 1100 lb animals. Pound for pound they are as strong as any athlete. There are now riding schools run by people like hall of fame jockey Chris McCarron.

I remember when I first started out working for Tom Amoss and we were discussing how the breakdown goes on track payouts for finishing in the money. I questioned that it seemed odd and unfair that we took care of these animals 24 hours a day, and the Jockeys were making the same percentage that we were. Tom responded “ Watch one of them go down one time and then ask yourself that question”

ES: In closing, have you come across an athlete or celebrity in your business that you found interesting to mention.

BS: When I was travelling the country purchasing horses, I would stop in Las Vegas on a Monday and Tuesday 3 times a month to watch the races there from around the country, when one day a guy walks up who I knew as being an assistant of another trainer, and he wants to introduce me to someone. I had grown a little tired of this, and enjoyed anonymity most of the time. As I became more successful, everyone wanted something. I obliged having not forgotten where I had come from in this business, and as we approach the table, I notice that the person he wants to introduce is none other than my childhood baseball hero, Pete Rose. At the moment I’m about to say hello Mr. Rose he turns around and says “Hi Brent” I grew up idolizing this guy, wearing my hair like his, dreaming of being him on the baseball diamond, and he recognizes me as a horse trainer, and calls me by my first name. Without taking a chance all those years back by entering into a strange new world of horseracing, I would have never met my childhood baseball hero. The lesson to be learned is to put yourself out there, and never underestimate the importance of a first chance meeting with someone new in your life.

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