The top trainers normally win with about 20 percent of their starters. An exceptional few win with 30 percent. Then there's Mike Chambers.
A remarkable story continues to unfold each day at Turf Paradise, where a trainer is flirting with history. Though no one keeps records on these sorts of things, it's a safe bet that no trainer in modern times has ever won with 47 percent of their starters over the course of a full year. Yet, 3 1/2 months into 2008, that's exactly what Chambers has done. Through April 15, the veteran horseman has won 53 races from 113 starters or 46.903 percent. Making the story even more remarkable is that Chambers quit training in 2002 because he wasn't winning enough races to make a decent living.
"Things are just going right now," he said. "I have good owners who are realistic about where to run their horses. And I have a very good rider (Seth Martinez) who has helped me out immensely. Everything has just come together. It's one of those things that doesn't happen very often."
Chambers' career was going relatively well back in the mid-90s. He won 21 races in 1997, including a bunch with Hesabull, who finished second that year in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Less than four years later, he was out of the game. He won just three races in 2001 and walked away, deciding to take up ranching in Idaho.
"My main stable was in Southern California and my main client decided not to buy any more yearlings," said Chambers. "I decided to get rid of the ones I had and went up to Idaho and ranched up there for a few years. We were running cattle up there."
The ranching business wasn't good to Chambers, either. Again struggling to make a living, he figured he had to do something else, so he went back to training. He came back to the racetrack in 2005, but aimed lower this time. Instead of trying to compete against the high profile stables in Southern California, he set up shop at places likes Turf Paradise and Emerald Downs.
Chambers was 14-for-38 (37 percent) in 2006 and 51-for-171 (30 percent) in 2007. It seems he was just getting warmed up. He won with the first two horses he started this year and has never slowed down. During one stretch, from Feb. 29 through March 10, he won with 13 of the 17 starters he sent out.
Chambers has a remarkable knack for keeping his horses on top of their games. Dating back to last December, he's won five straight with Lotta Gamble. Your Highness Leia reeled off six in a row.
Many of Chambers' horses have come to Turf Paradise from Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Having trained for years at those tracks, he has connections with prominent trainers like Eoin Harty and Jerry Fanning. Chambers takes horses who aren't cutting it in California -- "the ones those guys want to get rid of," he says.
The acquisitions include Whistled, an Unbridled's Song colt who was purchased as a yearling for $1 million by Sheikh Mohammed. The Darley stable apparently gave up on him before he ever started and sold him to one of Chambers' owners as part of a package deal. He broke his maiden at Turf Paradise in his career debut and then ran sixth in a starter allowance at Santa Anita.
Of course, no one can win as many races as Chambers does without coming under suspicion. Can anybody be that good? Chambers understands that there are a lot of people who think he's a cheat and that illegal drugs are behind his success. He dismisses the backstretch innuendo.
"They all think you're using something," he said. "But when you run one who's worth $20,000 for $5,000 it's easy to win. They all think that crap. You know how that goes. They can think what they want. That's their problem. We keep pounding at them."
Chambers said part of the reason he has been able to keep up his pace is that rival trainers are reluctant to claim horses from him. That's often the case when trainers are suspicious of another trainer. You don't want to claim their horses out of fear that they won't be competitive without the juice.
Chambers is about to shift his stable to Emerald Downs, which opens this week. He's not worried about the change of scenery, but said he could use a fresh infusion of horses. Many of his horses have used up all their conditions and now have to compete in open races, which are tougher to win.
That could slow him down. But Chambers doesn't sound like he thinks he's about to go into a slump. He sometimes has a bad day, but never a bad month or even a bad week. He's a win machine.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.