Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘Keep Showing Up’ Motto Pays Off For Davis

It only took four and a half years for trainer Chris Davis to progress from saddling his first winner to his 100th, and shortly thereafter to his first graded stakes win. Statistically speaking, he’s ahead of the curve. Watching the filly Naval Laughter crossing the wire first in the Grade 3 Modesty Stakes last Saturday at Arlington, Davis’ 105th winner overall, the 32-year-old trainer let the emotion show. 

He celebrated, of course, but like all lifelong horsemen he was right back in the barn before sunrise on Sunday morning.

“It’s funny, when you go back and listen to some of these top-tier trainers, and they say the first 100 wins were the hardest to get,” Davis said. “You just keep doing your job, keep showing up and it’ll happen. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

The same could be said for Naval Laughter’s career. The 4-year-old daughter of Midshipman was making just her fourth start in the Modesty, having missed the entirety of her sophomore season.

Breeder Anthony Braddock sold the filly as a yearling for $90,000 at Fasig-Tipton‘s July sale, then watched her run a game third in her first start in November of her 2-year-old season for trainer Ken McPeek. Naval Laughter developed an issue after that race, and the owners decided to run her back through another sale.

Braddock bought her back for $17,000 at the February Mixed sale in 2020, and gave her plenty of time to recover at his Two Hearts Farm. Meanwhile, the owner had been introduced to Davis through jockey Sophie Doyle.

Doyle got her first graded stakes win in the United States for Braddock in 2015 aboard Fioretti, and was aboard Naval Laughter for last Saturday’s win to complete the full circle. 

Trainer Chris Davis and jockey Sophie Doyle celebrate Naval Laughter’s graded stakes win in the Modesty

“Tony has been extremely patient with this filly, basically allowing us to have free rein with determining what her schedule is going to be,” Davis said. “She’d had plenty of time off, so there was no sense of rushing her back to the races only to get her hurt again. We really just let her take us to her first race.”

That collective “we” refers to Davis’ assistant trainer Mynor Ortiz. The man has been with Davis since the beginning of his training career, and works hard to keep both the horses and the stable staff happy. He was instrumental in bringing Naval Laughter back to the races. 

In her first start off the layoff, the filly “just blew us away,” Davis said. 

That first start in nearly 18 months came on June 3 in a maiden special weight on the synthetic at Arlington, which Naval Laughter won by an impressive 19 ¾ lengths. 

In her second start, Davis had tried to get the filly on the turf course but the race was rained off and held on the synthetic once again. Naval Laughter went a bit too quickly early and had a 3 ½-length lead at the head of the lane, but was run down in the stretch and had to settle for second.

Davis finally got Naval Laughter on the turf for the Modesty, and the filly relaxed off the pace to run down the leaders in the stretch and win by a half-length. She completed 1 1/16 miles on the firm Arlington course in 1:54.58.

“It was a pretty awesome feeling,” Davis said.

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Davis has had horse racing ingrained in his soul since his earliest memories of toddling around his mother Liane Davis’ shed rows throughout Chicago. She never trained more than 10 to 20 horses at a time, so their care was a family affair; Davis’ father was her assistant, an exercise rider, and also served as an assistant starter on the gate in the afternoons.

There was, however, a brief period when Davis considered working outside the racetrack, he admits.

“I was really into movies and acting and theater when I was younger,” Davis said. “I worked at Medieval Times in Chicago, jousting, and I got into film school but I decided not to go. It was more about who you know than where you go to school, so I decided to go to community college and get a business degree instead while I worked at the track.

“I may have done a lot of acting stuff, but I’ve also always loved the racetrack; once it gets into your blood it’s hard to get it out.”

Though he’d already passed the test to take out a trainer’s license by the time he graduated, Davis knew he wanted to learn more before setting out on his own. He exercised horses for trainers like Richard Hazelton, Rusty Hellman, Wayne Catalano, and Pat Byrne, then took his first assistant’s job for Mike Stidham.

Davis spent 5 ½ years with Stidham, then another two out on the west coast for Phil D’Amato.

“I was fortunate enough to see a lot,” Davis said. “People train so differently from coast to coast. I’d spent a lot of time in the Midwest, gone to New Orleans, New York, Gulfstream, shipping in to other trainers’ barns and watching how they do things, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time in California. Obviously there are trainers out there that are really strong in the game, so you figure there’s got to be some reason for that. I wanted to be able to see what they were doing, how they trained. 

“Out West, they train a little bit harder, just the way they breeze their horses and the work schedules are a little bit different.”

Today, Davis puts all his varied experience to good use when developing individualized schedules for his 35-horse string in Chicago. 

“I never worked for a straight ‘program guy,’” he explained. “Whether there were 50 or 150 in the barn, every horse got individual attention every day. So I’m always adapting different things to individualize it for each horse.”

A big part of his success has been Davis’ ability to read both horses and people.

“I really try to individualize every client to their needs, just like the horses,” he said. “I think honesty is the most important thing; you’re less likely to have a poor effort that’s unexplained.”

Trainer Chris Davis

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