The top handicap horse in North America was also the easiest one to spot on the grounds during the 2021 Keeneland Spring Meet. He was the chestnut with the big white face in Barn 2 that seemingly always had a set of eyes admirably cast in his direction. If that wasn’t distinctive enough, he was also the one in the stall with the giant banner over it depicting the very moment his trainer reached the proverbial mountaintop 40 years after setting out from base camp.
The view from the summit is often a breathtaking one. Since the evening of March 27 when he watched Godolphin homebred Mystic Guide turn the $12 million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1) into his personal showcase, it is a sight Michael Stidham has had to adjust his eyes to on a daily basis. In the months since adding one of the sport’s richest prizes to an already accomplished resume, the veteran trainer has found the glare of the spotlight pointed squarely at his shedrow, illuminating to the masses what many in the Thoroughbred racing community have known for decades.
Thanks to that moment at Meydan Racecourse, Stidham’s ability to produce top runners was pulled from under the radar and broadcast all over the world stage. Four decades after saddling his first winner, the 63-year-old conditioner is now enjoying a borderline fairy tale run, one that features a global powerhouse in Godolphin among his top clients, career highs in earnings the last two seasons, and a colt who may not be done ascending into rarified air.
To frame Stidham’s current reality as something based in the fantastical, however, would be to do a disservice to the lifetime he has spent persevering through every peak and valley his vocation has to offer. That he is enjoying the most successful stretch of his professional life at a point when many begin winding down can only be fully appreciated when set against the context of the gut punches that nearly floored him not all that long ago.
“Believe me, there were many times when I questioned ‘What am I doing?’,” the affable Stidham said. “And there were a few points where I questioned if I could even continue on. It’s been a roller coaster ride, but the last 20 years have been worth it.”
George Stidham’s well-meaning voice has echoed through his son’s head on more than one occasion.
The late jockey, trainer, and agent knew full well his son, Michael, was determined to follow him into the Thoroughbred business. While he wasn’t going to snatch the passion away from the boy who carried the Daily Racing Form among his schoolbooks, the elder Stidham wanted to make sure his son was fully prepared for unforgiving the world he wanted to immerse himself in.
“My dad, he always warned me ‘It’s a tough business, only a small percentage of trainers and jockeys make it to that top level. Be careful.’,” Stidham said. “But from when I was in grade school, I was wanting to go to the track. I wanted to go to the track in the afternoon even though in those days, kids weren’t allowed in. I would sneak in using my brother’s ID, anything I could do to get in.
“I was one of those kids who went to school and I’d have my racing form opened and back in those days to get race results, you would tune into a radio station and every half hour they would give you results. I’d have my Form and I’d circle the winners. It was just a lifestyle.”
After trying the college route for a couple of years, the younger Stidham decided to make a real go at carving out his own path in the Thoroughbred industry. In 1979, he saddled his first career starter with his first winner coming the following season. Based in Southern California during the 1980s, he was able to observe and learn from some of the best minds in the sport as he counted legends like Laz Barrera, Charlie Whittingham, and Richard Mandella among his backstretch brethren.
The experience itself may have been invaluable, but Stidham’s results during the latter part of the decade left him on the brink of financial ruin. After his barn posted over $585,000 in earnings in 1988 – highlighted by his first graded stakes winner, Manzotti – Stidham won just nine races total over the next two years and found himself taking refuge in Northern California to buy himself time.
“I got down to about 5-6 horses. I was in debt. I owed about $60,000 to the tack shop and the feed company and I didn’t know how I was going to get out of it,” Stidham said. “I decided to go to Northern California and had friends like Richard Mandella and John Sadler and a few other guys sending me horses that didn’t fit in Southern California. They were sending me horses up to just kind of get me to where I had horses again.
“I got up there and within a few months I had about 20 horses…but I knew that was just a band-aid on the problem. It wasn’t where I needed to go to get my career going. It was a dead end.”
Fittingly, one of the men who helped kick start Stidham’s career proved one the key figures to help pull it from the nadir. Texas-based owner Harold Goodman, one of Stidham’s first clients, reached out around that time to see if he was game to leave California for the Midwest and train privately for his operation. The answer was a no-brainer ‘yes’ and by 1994, Stidham was not only posting a then single-season career best of more than $664,000 in earnings, he was celebrating his first Grade 1 winner in Two Altazano, a daughter of Manzotti, who captured that year’s Coaching Club American Oaks.
The years that followed were ones that mirrored the progress of many of the horses Stidham has conditioned – a series of incremental improvements. Since first cracking the $2 million threshold in yearly earnings in 1999, Stidham’s operation hasn’t dipped below $1 million annually since. With horses like Willcox Inn, Sutra, Tizaqueena, and Upperline coming into his care, graded stakes victories became a regular occurrence each season.
“I think that it’s just a great story because from the training standpoint, Mike came from humble beginnings. It was no overnight sensation,” said Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin’s U.S. operations. “He’s steadily climbed those stairs and like any owner or breeder or trainer, everyone is just hoping and waiting for that big horse that kind of takes them to the next level and showcases their overall abilities and how they handle it.”
If ever there was a testament to what Stidham could do when given the time, talent, and resources, the 2015 edition of the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland was that. That afternoon, he led over the filly Her Emmynency for owners Dawn and Ike Thrash nearly a year after nursing her back from a severe bout of colitis. When the daughter of Successful Appeal upset the field at odds of 19-1, Stidham thought he could start working backwards on how to get young distaffer to the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) the following year.
Instead, two weeks after that triumph, he found himself sitting in his Keeneland office with his longtime partner and assistant Hilary Pridham wondering how they were going to recover from a hit that threatened to knock the wind out of the operation.
Much of a trainer’s life is spent steeling themselves for inevitable bad news, the product of choosing a profession rooted in the fragile and fickle. Conditioned as he was to brace himself for pitfalls, Stidham was left decidedly shook when he was informed by the Thrashes that they were removing Her Emmynency and the rest of their horses from his care in favor of having their string based on the West Coast.
“It was brutal,” Stidham recalled. “I must admit Hilary and I both sat there and just said ‘How is this possible?’. We had been training all the Thrash horses, we had decent success, then we win the Grade 1 and was like ‘Ike, why?”. And he just said that my circuit wasn’t really working for them because I moved from New Orleans and Chicago at the time, and I was constantly moving. And he just felt like my circuit didn’t really fit with what they wanted to do.
“I understand it. But it’s hard to win a Grade 1 and then lose a client after that.”
Of all the things Stidham couldn’t fathom in that moment, the notion that he was about to enter the most fortuitous period of his career seemed the most far-fetched. That summer, his phone rang again with another high-profile figure on the other end of the line. This time, however, it was Godolphin Chief Operating Officer Dan Pride wanting to know if the veteran horseman was interested in conditioning some 2-year-olds for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s operation.
“And I hung up the phone and I looked at Hilary like….this is it,” Stidham grinned.
It is no coincidence that the Stidham barn has repeatedly topped itself since that first string of Godolphin runners arrived in the summer of 2016. The last five seasons have been the most lucrative of Stidham’s career and he has surpassed $4 million in earnings in each of the past two years.
Life was already clicking along at a good rate when a chestnut son of Ghostzapper made his first start for Stidham last February. Out of Godolphin’s Grade 1 winner Music Note, Mystic Guide flashed the kind of promise during his 3-year-old season that easily could have prompted his team to take a swing at a Kentucky Derby (G1) start, especially when the classic was delayed until September due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Rather than rush obvious talent, Stidham and Pridham astutely gave Mystic Guide time to get his mental and physical ability on the same page. After beginning his 4-year-old season with a handy victory in the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 27, the copper-colored colt headed overseas and announced himself on an international stage with a 3 ¾-length triumph in the Dubai World Cup.
“Mystic Guide is just an absolute perfect example of their total package in that they knew they had a talented colt but they didn’t ever push him,” Bell said. “You could see the potential, but it was potential. It wasn’t quite ready back during his 3-year-old year. We knew he would continue to mature but he was mentally not as up to it. With the rescheduling of Derby, we could have swung but that’s the horsemanship, that’s the discipline, that’s the objectivity that they bring to it and it makes our overall management so much easier because you’re in synch with how they do things and how they go about it.
“With the Mystic Guide situation, their patience was repaid.”
Bell’s repeated references to a collective team rather than single entity when discussing his trainer is arguably the biggest reason Stidham has been able to build his career back better. Around the time he was getting himself on firm footing in 1999, he met his personal and professional match.
Sitting in his Keeneland office on an overcast morning in April recounting the journey that led to 40 years of emotions spilling out in Dubai, Stidham’s throat suddenly catches and his eyes dampen when discussing the real catalyst behind that moment.
“I can promise you that without her…,” said Stidham, his voice trailing off as he fought to find the words to articulate his partner of more than 20 years in Pridham. “She’s the glue that holds the whole operation. Running the whole program, working with the people, it wouldn’t be happening without her.”
Fate put Pridham in Stidham’s path after the former left her position as an assistant with trainer Noel Hickey not long after helping condition champion Buck’s Boy to victory in the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). In the saddle, Pridham possesses that rare kind of feel that tells her more about mounts than the naked eye could detect. Given their combined skillset, it is no wonder Stidham’s clients often boast of having a 2-for-1 deal in terms of expertise.
“I know that I don’t know a better horse person than Hilary is, and her and Mike are just a great team together,” said bloodstock agent John Adger, longtime friend and client of Stidham’s. “We’ve over the years had a lot of luck together and I just couldn’t be prouder. Outside of the Godolphin group, I might be one of their biggest cheerleaders. I don’t think I’ve been more excited, even when we had a horse, than when Mystic Guide won the World Cup.”
Added Bell, “That has been one of the highlights of this all is what absolutely super people Mike and Hilary are – not just horsemanship but as individuals. They are the kind of folks you get so excited for. They work great together, they each see things differently, they work collaboratively and they’re just great teammates.”
Should Mystic Guide keep building on his talent heading towards his ultimate target – the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) – he could end up giving his team their own page in racing’s history books. While multiple horses have won both the Classic and Dubai World Cup during their careers, none have captured the two prestigious tests in the same calendar year.
Since settling into Stidham’s summer base at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, Mystic Guide has returned to the worktab with the $400,000 Suburban Handicap (G2) at Belmont Park on July 3 penciled in for his next start. His every move now comes with an added layer of pressure, but with that also comes the privilege Stidham enjoys of surveying all sorts of new pinnacles he is confident can be conquered.
And because of how arduous the ascent has been, Stidham makes no bones about wanting to savor his current perspective.
“Without a doubt it’s been something that every trainer strives for, to get up to that higher level,” Stidham said. “Definitely being involved with Godolphin has been the catalyst to take me there and then getting to go on the world stage with Mystic Guide was like this dream come true. For 40 years, you watch all this go on, you watch a lot of other trainers get to that and you think, wow. Now, it’s actually me doing it.”