Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Against The Odds And Despite Her Doubters, Chichakly Is On Her Way

It’s not an easy time to be a trainer of racehorses right now, let alone a new trainer. Amira Chichakly knows that as well as anybody, but she made the leap all the same, in the middle of a global pandemic and mass economic uncertainty.

Chichakly spent several years as an assistant to Gary Contessa, a longtime fixture on the New York circuit. When Contessa announced his retirement from public training in March 2020, he made it clear his departure was not the result of disillusion with the horses, but the headaches of running the business. Recent investigations by the U.S. Department of Labor have put a number of high-profile New York trainers in the crosshairs, adding time-keeping and record-keeping practices on top of the mountain of paperwork it takes to navigate a constricting federal visa program and recruiting skilled help.

“When I had 100 horses, I could absorb this, but when I have 40 horses and 20 of them are so-so, it’s not enough to overcome what the Department of Labor is expecting of us,” Contessa said at the time. “There was a time when I was a ‘super trainer’ and I did very well. When you had the occasional owner who defaulted on you, you had the horses you got stuck with, you had Department of Labor audits, winning would overcome all of that stuff. But when you have a smaller stable — unless you do everything yourself — I don’t see how you can do this.”

Into these woes walked Chichakly, who had long pondered putting out her own shingle.

“I pretty much got the choice of, I could take Gary’s offer to take things on or be jobless,” she said. “Nobody was hiring anybody at the time. I don’t like sitting idle, so I decided I was going full steam into this.”

When Chichakly got the call from Contessa, she had just learned she was pregnant with her daughter, though she wasn’t yet sharing that publicly. The timing probably could not have been more challenging, but it also wasn’t a good time to suddenly become unemployed. She had decided some time before that she needed at least eight horses to make a profit, and with Contessa’s offer to transition previous owners over to her, she had 11.

In her time working for Contessa and Wayne Catalano, she had seen the glories of being a trainer but also the headaches. It seemed there were an awful lot of headaches, but like many people in this business, the lure of the horse made it seem worth it.

“Looking at it I thought, it’s not so glorious to be a trainer,” she said. “But I do love figuring out horses, putting the pieces together and figuring out what works for them. I like to be able to find the best parts of the horse and making sure they’re happy, too.”

Chichakly aboard Gentlemen’s Bet

Chichakly has galloped for many years and still gets on her own string as often as she can, having discovered she can often feel little changes she doesn’t always see from the ground. Her dressage training enables her to not only pick up on weaknesses and asymmetry, but also to work in stretching and bending to help correct those issues before they turn into big problems.

In addition to the usual woes of struggling to hire reliable help and get each the day’s work done, Chichakly also believes there’s a sense of jealousy toward new trainers on the backstretch.

“I think that’s true for any young trainer starting out,” she said. “There’s always doubters, people who are waiting for someone to fail. I don’t think that’s specific to me, I see it with other people too. Being a female trainer, too. There are people out there that say we can’t do it. Number one word out there is ‘crazy.’ People love saying that word … I know another female trainer right now who’s going through that. She feels like people are actively rooting against her and I don’t think she’s wrong, because I hear people talking about her or other young trainers. ‘Oh they’ll never make it,’ ‘Oh they don’t know what they’re doing,’ or ‘They won’t last that long.’ And it’s sad, because we need small trainers for racing to survive. They don’t understand their competition is not the person who’s got five horses, it’s the person who has 500 horses.

“If someone’s passionate enough to be here every day, you should be rooting for them. Because there aren’t that many left.”

A year and a half later though, things are coming together. Chichakly has saddled 11 winners and is already graded stakes-placed, thanks to Limonite, who picked up third in the Grade 3 Excelsior and second in the Stymie earlier this year. Now, her hopes are high for 2-year-old Our Tiny Dancer, who broke her maiden at Delaware Park Sept. 9 and is entered in the Joseph A. Gimma Stakes at Belmont on Sept. 24. The New York-bred filly was the first winner for sire Union Jackson.

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“Because of COVID-19 and being pregnant, then a new mother and a new business owner with little help, I really couldn’t get to the sales early on,” Chichakly recalled. “Something I had been so excited for as a trainer, I had to miss. This year, I was getting really frustrated missing OBS and not having 2-year-olds and I knew I had to go to Maryland myself. I’m sure everyone was laughing at the dog and baby in tow but I brought them both to all the under tack shows.

“Right away the Union Jacksons stood out to me, despite not knowing him as a racehorse.”

Chichakly had her eye on several, but found herself either priced out or outbid. Contessa was also at the sale and tipped her off to the chestnut filly, ultimately acting as agent for the purchase as Chichakly signed her first sales ticket. Owned by a partnership including John Moirano, Pines Stables, John Irwin and Sallie P Thoroughbred Racing, Chichakly took a few starts to figure out exactly what the filly needed – soft turf wasn’t her thing, and she missed her break in her first dirt start. She took a small string to Delaware Park for a week – with no staff – expecting there would be a place for the filly that would be a little friendlier.

“She delivered above and beyond my hopes for that start,” said Chichakly. “She’s not magically a Breeders’ Cup-type horse, but she packs quite a punch and should be quite capable in New York fields moving forward.”

One of Chichakly’s watercolors

Never one to sit idly, Chichakly still does much of the hot walking, stall cleaning, and grooming herself in addition to the usual training responsibilities of setting schedules, reading condition books, dealing with the books. When she isn’t doing the job of several people, she also dabbles in the visual arts. She sometimes helps photograph major race days for the New York Racing Association if she’s not running horses, and paints watercolors – all while juggling care of her young daughter. On Whitney Day, she was marching up and down the track with a 9-month-old baby in a pack on her back.

“Someone got a picture I think, I had her on my back and one camera on one shoulder and the other camera on the other shoulder,” Chichakly said. “I think when you’re a horseman you’re a multitasker anyway. When I was assistant trainer for Gary, he’d leave me sometimes with 60 horses at Belmont when they were in Saratoga, and I was on the pony too and sometimes riding. To be able to watch everything and get through the day, to have people not show up you get really used to having one thought here and one thought there, and working it as you’re moving. You don’t think about how much you actually did until you sit down at the end of the day and realize how tired you are.”

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Against The Odds And Despite Her Doubters, Chichakly Is On Her Way appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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