By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
After 32 years of grooming, grinding and trying to turn claimers with precious few gifts into something better, Lise Pruitt just had the best week of her professional life.
On Monday night, three-year-old beauty Melisandre left Pruitt’s barn and demolished the field in the $35,000 Hazel Wright Sire Stakes at Assiniboia Downs. It was the undefeated Melisandre’s third Stakes victory of the season and her seventh consecutive win. Ridden by Stanley Chadee Jr., Melisandre went off at 1-9 and coasted to a five-length victory. Chadee Jr. never even showed her the whip.
Then, on Wednesday night, Pruitt saddled Impressive Sense with Chadee Jr. in the irons again, and watched the talented three-year-old gelding beat a solid field in the $35,000 Frank Arnason Stakes by three-and-a-half lengths. It was another win for True North Thoroughbreds and Arnason Farms and another win for Manitoba’s finest breeder, Ziprick Farms.
But it was also another win for Pruitt, who has never, in her 32 years at the track and 26 years as a trainer, had as talented a barn as she has right now. And after all the wait and all the work, she is soaking in the moment.
“I’m not home very often,” she said with a laugh. “I try to make sure everything is right, all the time. I want to put the time in because I really enjoy being out with the horses. You don’t have a lot of time in this business so you have to really try and make it count. And with this barn, I want to make it count.”
Pruitt, 49, will happily admit that she needs to pinch herself every now and again. She’s been around the track, it seems, forever, but she’s never been given the respect she deserves and she’s never before had an owner like Barry Arnason, the man who decided to hand the reins to some of the most beautiful thoroughbreds in Manitoba to a woman who has never had this much talent with which to work.
“I’ve worked with Barry on and off and then last winter, I only had a couple of horses of my own and I just thought that wasn’t enough,” she conceded. “So, Barry had Mike Nault as his trainer and I offered to help them out and did that for the season and then kept working for them during the winter. Barry asked me to start training in January because he has everything set up at the farm to get started early. So, I was going full bore January into February.
“But the deal was, Don Schnell (the trainer of Escape Clause) was coming back and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can work for Don Schnell.’ Then, all of a sudden, we’re already out here at the track in the spring, and Barry comes walking out and says, ‘Don Schnell is not coming back,’ and I’m thinking ‘Oh, gawd, now who am I going to work for?’ and Barry says, ‘Well, I have to meet with the True North boys and figure something out,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, oh.’ But I didn’t panic. I knew I’d done a solid job working for him all winter and spring and maybe something would work out and it wasn’t 10 minutes later, he walked back to me and said, ‘OK, if you want the opportunity, it’s all yours. You go for it.”
Pruitt was stunned.
“I thought, ‘Whoa, I’ve just been given some of the finest horses at the track,’ Wow!” she said. “But then I thought, I’m confident with all of these horses because I know them, so it’s going to be no problem to keep going. I told him I’d work as hard as I can and I’m just really grateful that I’ve been given the chance.
“We have Melisandre, Reasonable Cause, Escape Clause’s sister, and the one that won the stakes race on Wednesday, Impressive Sense, he’s special. I knew him really well because I groomed him last year and I groomed Melisandre for a little bit. I really got attached to Impressive Sense and we’re happy that he’s coming around. There are a lot of good horses in that barn, I could name you all 19 of them.”
Arnason makes no bones about the fact, he deeply respects Pruitt and her tireless work ethic.
“Lise is a really, really hard worker,” said Arnason. “She’s never had a lot of quality horses given to her, but we believe she’s the right trainer for Melisandre and the rest of the horses we have with her.”
Pruitt’s story is a real rags to riches racing affair. She arrived at the Downs as Lise Cayer, a teenager who loved horses more than school.
“One day, I just showed up here at the track,” she said. “I should have stayed in Ile des Chenes and graduated high school, but I always knew I wanted to work with horses and I thought, ‘How do I do this?’ So, I just started showing up at the track. I was 17. That was 1989. I should have finished school, but my parents knew I was adamant about working with horses so they let me go. I just started to show up and I never left.
“I didn’t know anything about it and I took a chance on finding someone who was willing to teach me. I’m not from a farm, so we didn’t have horses. It was just something I wanted to do. So, the first summer, it was John Gray who gave me a chance, but he was really tough on me. It was not good.
“So, I took a break, left the track and then went back and was walking around looking for something to do and Barry Hodgson and Emil Corbel walked by and they both said, ‘I’ll take her,’ and so I ended up going to work with Barry Hodgson and that turned out to be great because his wife Linda took the time to teach me a lot. I think I washed pails forever. At first, he wouldn’t let me near the horses and I didn’t mind. I showed up every day and said ‘I don’t care how many pails I have to wash I’ll do whatever you want,’ and that’s how I started.
“I just did more and more and you couldn’t keep me down. I stayed with Barry eight or nine years. I got my assistant’s card and I learned different things. I learned a lot from my husband (jockey Jerry Pruitt who rode until 2017 when he was 66 and the oldest rider in Canada) and we started going south to the sales and I learned a lot more there. It’s been a heck of a ride.”
Pruitt got her trainer’s license in 1995 and also picked up her first win, with a horse named Sports Reward.
“That was the first horse I won with, the first year I was training,” she said. “I’ll never forget that horse because I kept him until the day he died, at age 27. He raced until he was eight, maybe nine. He was a good one.
“But I’ve had nothing like I have this year,” she admitted. “I did win the Hazel Wright once with one of my own horses, Artois, and that was pretty special. That was always the most special thing to me until I got this opportunity and this is beyond anything I could have imagined.”
These days, when she goes to work, she is surrounded by some extremely valuable animals who can win every time they go to the gate.
“We’ve won four Stakes already,” she said. “Three with Melisandre and one with Dumpy. That’s what we call Impressive Sense – Dump Truck. So, yeah, that’s four this year and Reasonable Clause come third behind Meli, so we’ve been in the money, too.
“I’m having the best time of my life. And it’s fun, too. Absolutely, it’s fun.”