Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘Still Hard To Believe That It Really Happened’

When Thoroughbred trainer Michelle Giangiulio took out her license in the fall of 2020, she expected that there would be challenges. Bills, stress, and the general volatility that can come from working with horses are all things that the New Jersey-born horsewoman knows well.

What she didn’t expect was just how hard it would be to keep a horse, any horse, in her barn.

“The first starter I sent out in March got claimed immediately,” said Giangilulio. “He was the only horse I had, so it was hard to keep things going. I know it’s part of the game, but I didn’t know that they would take him out of a one-person stable. But the thing is, you have to have had one starter before you can claim. So, after that, I really started working on claiming. I was just so unlucky.”

Claiming would prove to be another hurdle. Despite her hustle, the fledgling trainer lost shake after shake. Her second horse, sent to her by horseman Marshall Gramm—who had also sent her first starter—was claimed on his first outing. A couple more horses would eventually trickle in, but in the days leading up to her summer move to Saratoga Race Course, Giangiulio’s prospects for increasing her stable were still looking slim.

“It was funny how it set up because I was dropping every day on horses, and I was losing every shake every day. I could not get one single horse,” said Giangiulio. “I think I lost 12 shakes in a row before finally, I won two back-to-back.”

One of those horses was Sea Foam, a 6-year-old son of Medaglia d’Oro. With him, Giangiulio’s claiming woes would be forgotten. Only the sixth starter of Giangiulio’s career, Sea Foam delivered the trainer her first victory in the Aug. 11 Evan Shipman Handicap at Saratoga.
Since then, Giangiulio’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing.

“It’s been surreal,” said Giangiulio. “There have been so many podcasts and reporters and I was in the newspaper. It’s been such a fun experience.

“To think about it now, it really set up perfectly because if I had won a few other shakes, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get Sea Foam. I’m a small stable and I don’t have any employees. It’s only me. If I’d got up to five or six horses, I couldn’t really get anything else, so I think it was meant to be.”

Giangiulio’s path to becoming a newly minted stakes-winning trainer has been a winding one. Growing up on a farm in New Jersey where her father and grandfather bred Thoroughbreds, she always knew she wanted to work with horses, but I what capacity, she wasn’t sure.

“I really didn’t get involved in horse racing until I was out of my teenage years and into my early twenties,” said Giangiulio. “I was in the show world for a very long time really. I got a job on a farm when I was about 13 years old, and I started showing professionally at that age. The issue was that I really didn’t get anywhere and showing is very expensive and political. I knew I wanted to be a horse trainer; I just didn’t know exactly what discipline I wanted to do.”

Seeking advice, Giangiulio turned to her uncle, trainer Carlo Guerrero, based at Parx Racing less than an hour from her home. Under his tutelage, Giangiulio said she learned everything it took to train a Thoroughbred and acquired the skills, the confidence, and the contacts she needed to move up in the industry.

“It was a great experience at Parx, but it didn’t feel like it was where I wanted to be,” said Giangiulio. “I moved to New York and got a job with Chad Brown through a friend and that was a really cool experience to be able to work with really, really nice horses. I then worked for quite a few trainers. I’ve been here six or seven years now and I’ve I worked for Joe Sharp, Tom Morley, Horacio DePaz, Kelly Breen … quite a few.”

At the end of 2020 and with the support of client Marshall Gramm, whom she had worked for under Guerrero at Parx, Giangiulio decided it was time to strike out on her own. From there, Giangiulio would play the numbers game until at last, Sea Foam found his way into her hands.

Claimed for the partnership of Ten Strike Racing and Four Corners Racing Stable, Sea Foam was picked up off a July 30 allowance optional claiming race win at Saratoga from the barn of Christophe Clement. A New York-bred who had already banked just over $500,00 in purses, Sea Foam’s previous stakes-wining history and forward training style gave Giangiulio the confidence he could win the 1 1/8-mile Evan Shipman.

“It came up as a five-horse field and I had heard that Steve Asmussen wasn’t going in with his three nominees,” said Giangiulio. “Sea Foam came out of the race where I claimed him so well and he was doing so good that when I saw this race came up light, I wanted to take a shot. The only horse I was worried about was Mr. Buff because he’s a speed horse and Sea Foam only likes to run on the lead. But Mr. Buff didn’t show up that day, so we got the lead and when Sea Foam gets the lead, he is tough to beat. He can run all day. That’s what he wants, to be on the lead by himself.

“Watching him run I just thought, ‘Is this really happening right now? This is amazing!’ It’s still hard to believe that it really happened. To win your first career win in a stake, off the claim, off a very well-known trainer … the story can’t get any better than that.

“One thing that is funny is that the week before Sea Foam ran, I had a horse (Joey Loose Lips) run in an allowance race. He was bumping up in class and we just got beat at the wire. I thought for sure he would be my first winner but the following week, Sea Foam just jumped up and won the stake, so I know I wasn’t supposed to win that allowance. I saved my first win for the stake. It was just really, really special.”

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Now stabled at Belmont Park year-round, Giangiulio has six horses in her stable. Sea Foam will likely target a next start in the Sept. 25 Greenwood Cup (G3) at Parx, where he will try his luck at a mile and a half.

While the size of her stable has increased, Giangiulio remains a one-woman show. But with new clients and a renewed goal to claim new runners this winter, it’s a status that Giangiulio hopes to change in the coming months.

“I’m grooming, galloping, and hot walking right now. It’s been really hard to find help this year so I knew I would have to do it this way,” said Giangiulio. “I also don’t have a lot of money to have a full payroll. It’s expensive to do this with supplies and tack and everything else. I’m really looking now to start hiring. I have a lot of owners that want to claim, and I have new owners who want to send me horses so once I get back to Belmont and I’m settled in, I’m going to start building up.”

Despite her spotty luck in claiming at the start of her career, Sea Foam’s success has proved to Giangiulio that claiming will remain a central part of her operation. The opportunity to provide hands on attention to young and previously trained horses remains central to Giangiulio’s philosophy as a trainer.

“I’m always looking for a nice claimer that I can improve,” said Giangiulio. They’re good horses and I got started in the claiming game, so I know that I’m good at it. In the spring, Marshall Gramm usually has a lot of nice 2-year-olds and he said that he would send some to me. He usually sends them to Brad Cox, but Brad is growing so big now, so I should be getting some nice 2-year-olds. But for now, it’ll be the claiming game for me.

“There are a lot of challenges in being a trainer, but in less than a year I feel like I’ve come really far. I only have a few horses, but they’re all good horses. I’m just so happy with how things have been going and I feel fortunate. I don’t want to grow too big. All the trainers I’ve worked for over the years have told me to take my time and not grow too fast because the expenses are ridiculous when you start having a payroll and other bills. It’s already a bit overwhelming now, so I’m happy where I’m at. I have everything organized so that when I do build, I’ll know what to do. I also feel like I have an advantage because no one knows these horses better than I do. There is nothing more rewarding that seeing a horse win that you’ve been doing all the work on. Knowing nobody else has touched that horse but you—it’s pretty special.”

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