By: Alex Campbell
With over 1,000 wins, it’s more than luck of the Irish for trainer Mike Doyle.
For long-time Woodbine trainer Mike Doyle, a lifelong passion for horses developed at an early age while growing up on his family’s 35-acre property in Ireland.
Doyle, 64, was born in Dublin to Jack and Elsie Doyle. Jack held a number of roles in the horse racing industry throughout his career, including rider and trainer before becoming a successful bloodstock agent. As a result, Doyle and his three brothers were always involved with the horses, along with rugby, as their father played one match for Ireland’s national team in the 1930s.
“We had a lot of horses,” Doyle said. “We were breaking horses. We had show horses and jumping horses, steeplechasers and flat horses. We had everything. You were always working with horses, even when you were going to school.”
Doyle said his father had wanted him to go to veterinary school in Ireland in the 1970s, but Doyle decided he wanted to do something different. He was set to head to Australia to work for top Australian trainer Tommy Smith, but wound up getting sick and couldn’t travel there. However, his father’s bloodstock business led him to Canada for a new opportunity.
“When I got accepted to the vet college in Dublin, I took my father out to the pub for a few pints and told him I didn’t want to go to school anymore,” Doyle said. “He had just come back from Canada and had done some business with George Gardiner, so I went to work at Gardiner Farms.”
Doyle went on to work at Gardiner Farms for nine months before moving on to manage a small farm in St. Catharines, ON. But Doyle missed the racetrack, and a year and a half later he found a new job working for trainer Jim Bentley at Woodbine.
“(The farm) wasn’t quite exciting enough for me, so I came back to the track and worked for Jim, a lovely little Irish guy,” Doyle said. “I was a groom, I rode a little bit, and assisted him for a little while.”
Doyle also served as an assistant trainer for Kinghaven Farms before getting a chance to go off on his own.
“George Frostad asked me if I’d take his horses to Florida,” said Doyle. “They were 2-year olds, young horses. So I did that with no promises of training or anything, but I trained for him for a while and we did great.”
Doyle recorded his first starter and first winner in 1978. From there, he began to add more clients, and his stable quickly expanded. According to Equibase figures, Doyle recorded 153 starters as a trainer in 1980, just two years after going off on his own.
“The barn expanded a lot (in the 1980s),” he said. “I trained for Mr. Frostad. I had a small private job with him. I added some horses and he was kind enough to let me do that. It was the Eaton’s – Eaton Hall Farm – and I still train for them today. They bought some really nice horses and we had some really good horses over the years. Bessarabian, Baldski’s Holiday, so many of them.”
Bessarabian was one of the best horses Doyle has ever trained. The Pennsylvania-bred filly won 18 of her 37 career starts, including 14 stakes wins. She was also named Canadian champion older mare in 1986. Doyle acquired Bessarabian just after she turned two.
“I had a friend in Ocala who had his own farm,” said Doyle. “He said, ‘Look, I’ve got a filly here by Vice Regent. She’s a Pennsylvania-bred and these people don’t like her. I’ve got a 150 of them (horses) and I really like her.’ I looked at her and I had in my mind all winter that we’d buy her. I got Mr. Eaton to buy her for $122,000 and she was a brilliant filly.”
Along with Bessarabian, Doyle has trained numerous stakes-caliber horses during his career, including 1989 Canadian Oaks winner Blondeinamotel, and Wild Gale, who Doyle campaigned through the 1993 Triple Crown where he finished third in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
“The Triple Crown was a cool experience,” he said. “If you ever look at the tape of the Kentucky Derby, he was very unlucky not to win. He came from way back. Sea Hero got through on the inside, and they were both heading to the same hole, and Sea Hero got there first. Shane (Sellers) had to check after he turned for home. He ran on and got beat a nose or a head for second and not that far for the win.”
Doyle also won his first Sovereign Award as outstanding trainer in 1984 after winning 43 races and recording over $1.1-million in purse earnings.
His training career was progressing nicely into the 1990s when he was offered a position to become racing manager for Frank Stronach. Doyle accepted the position in 1994 and worked for Stronach for three years. In that time, the stable moved up in the owner standings each year, and won the 1994 Queen’s Plate with Basquein, who was trained by Daniel Vella.
“We bought a lot of nice horses and I had a lot to do with that, which is nice,” Doyle said. “I don’t have any problem dealing with anybody, so I had gotten along with all of the trainers and farm managers and we all worked well together. The idea was to have something great and it all worked out.”
Doyle returned to training in 1997 after completing his contract with Stronach and has consistently been among the top Woodbine trainers through the years. He hit a major milestone in October 2014 when he won his 1,000th career race with Evangeline’s Hope.
He currently maintains a 36-horse stable at Woodbine and is showing no signs of slowing down. Doyle recently became a consultant for Stronach’s racing division. When asked whether he could see himself training for years to come, Doyle said he’s still enjoying being a trainer and couldn’t see why he’d stop anytime soon.
As for his enduring training career, Mike Doyle, like his starters, is showing no signs of slowing down.