It’s usually the people who have everything who will say the material “everything” isn’t why they do what they do.
Sitting outside one of his three stalls at the stakes barn at Saratoga Race Course, Colonie native and trainer Mike Shevy doesn’t have that big chunk of everything, but he finds a way to have enough, and that’s all he’s asking for.
The intangibles that are sometimes overromanticized, they really are what keep Shevy in the game.
“I wouldn’t trade my life. It’s a lot of hard work, but you have to love it,” he said. “You have to love animals and being around them. You can’t be in this game, at this level, for the money. You can’t come in and say this horse has to win this weekend, and that horse has to win next month, and I need so many thousands. You can’t think that way. It’ll just come back to bite you. You’ve just got to keep your head down, keep working.”
Shevy, who will celebrate his 56th birthday Saturday, has been in and out of the business over the last 25 years, financing his efforts much of that time with his auto body repair shop, Shevy & Sons Body Works, in Albany.
He left the business for a few years in the 1990s, though, to start a family.
“You can’t go home to your wife and say, ‘Well, if I win, we’ll have $3,000 for groceries this week. If I don’t, I need to borrow a few hundred,’ ” he said.
“I got out of horse racing when I got married. I married a girl from up north. This is a tough business. You just can’t do the wife and infants thing in this business unless somebody gives you a few stakes horses. I guess the scenario would be different. Just like anything else, just like the song, if I knew then what I know now. I knew I couldn’t have horses and raise a family. So I got out of it for a while, had a family and three beautiful children.
“The marriage lasted for seven years. As soon as it ended, I came right down to the sale and bought a horse. The day after, I was right back in the game, back over to the Oklahoma again.”
The self-taught trainer has saddled horses in just a few hundred races over those two and a half decades, mostly horses he’s owned, picking up his first winner since 2010 last Thursday with One More Chief.
The wins are always great, but for Shevy, just hitting the board has been cause for celebration.
He can remember each of his big checks, especially the ones at Saratoga, and does so with great nostalgia. Those have been the moments that justify his pouring so much of his life into this business.
His first check at Saratoga came on Aug. 25, 1988, when Golden Fortune finished second in a claiming race. It was just 16 days after Golden Fortune won a claiming race at Rockingham at long odds. The Rockingham win was Golden Fortune’s second from 16 starts and proved to be his last. He finished his career with 28 starts, two thirds, two wins, and that one second-place check at Saratoga.
Shevy’s first winner here came on Aug. 30, 2004, with Midnight Summit in a maiden special weight race. He had run fourth on Aug. 6 and second on Aug. 19 before breaking through and giving Shevy a milestone win at 34-1. He was bumped at the start of the seven-furlong dirt race, spotting the leaders better than a dozen lengths before jockey Heberto Castillo Jr. rallied him wide in the stretch for a win by 1 1⁄4 lengths.
That turned out to be the lone win from 33 career starts for Midnight Summit, who Shevy also owned.
A year later, he had “the horse of the meet.”
“I had the horse of the meet, if you look back at the archives in 2005,” he said. “A horse named Of All Times. He won two races and got a second here. That horse kind of put me on the map, even though I’d won races here before.
“I got checks here back in the ’80s against some nice trainers. There were no New York-bred races back then. I ran against Personal Ensign’s sister and Claude McGaughey, a $3,000 horse against a $1 million horse, and ran second to her. So little things like that, in a little trainer’s mind or in his resume, are big deals.
“I remember when I got my first check here. I got a second back in 1988. I went into the Jim Dandy bar and broke down; you’d have thought I’d won the Kentucky Derby. Those are the achievements for a little trainer.”
Of All Times has to be Shevy’s best horse of all time, or at least he was for a month that summer. He finished second in a maiden special weight race here on July 29, 2005, then won next time out in another maiden special weight on Aug. 8. He followed up with a win Aug. 22 in a $48,000 allowance race before finishing the meet with a seventh-place finish Sept. 5 in a $50,000 allowance.
Shevy has had a good start to this Saratoga meet, getting a second and a third already from Courageous Karen, a 4-year-old New York-bred filly he owns, and the win from One More Chief, a 3-year-old New York-bred gelding he trains for Susanne Hooper.
Shevy also owns 3-year-old filly See See See, and these three horses occupy his space in the stakes barn. He owns two 2-year-olds, too, which are stabled at Haven Oaks Farm in Fort Edward, which is owned by Susanne and Jim Hooper, who were part-owner and trainer, respectively, for retired graded-stakes winner Inherit the Gold.
See See See and Courageous Karen were gifted to Shevy, though he stops to correct himself after saying they were free, because, “There’s no such thing as a free horse,” because of the cost of their upkeep.
Some of the horses he owns, he takes with a handshake agreement that he will split the earnings with the previous owner until a certain dollar amount is met.
“That’s how I get my horses,” he said. “I don’t have $12,000 to give you for a horse. If I had $12,000, I wouldn’t give it to you for a horse. This is how I get my horses, and some of them pan out, and a lot of them don’t. So when my horses get checks, I’m thrilled to death. I’m thrilled to death today to get third [Friday with Courageous Karen]. I’m in Saratoga, in the toughest meet in the country, and I just got third with a free horse. She went 21 and 45, and the next fraction was pretty quick, and she got beat by two feet.”
According to stats provided by equibase.com, he has made $76,286 from his 15 starts this year, already one of the best years of his career.
Although he doesn’t want to pat himself on the back too much when talking about it, a slight smile betrays him. Even then, though, he catches himself with the memories of everything he’s paid into the business.
“It’s a hard thing to explain, because if you let the emotions get to you, you think of all the hard work, you think of all the times you went home with no money, and you think about things you gave up,” he said. “It’s not that you want people to feel sorry for you, because you have race horses, but I guess it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.”
Yet he’s determined to be all he’s cracked up to be.
He won’t claim horses, and he won’t run his horses for others to claim. They’ve brought him too much joy for him to sell them off. He’d rather give them away to some farm where they will be ridden and enjoy their retirement.
It’s a sentimental side that surely has cost him several thousand dollars over the years. He admits he likes money as much as the next guy, but he loves his horses more.
“I almost think there’s still room for that [sentimentality] in racing,” he said. “Everything is, ‘Does the mare have speed? Does the sire have speed? How much money am I going to make with this horse?
Its sister made $300,000?’ I don’t really get involved in that. I never am going to be involved in that end of the business. I’m never going to claim horses. I don’t care how much my horses pay. I don’t bet on them. I’m in it for them.”