‘It’s A Gift’: The Calming Influence Of Cordell Anderson

Watching Cordell Anderson guide a horse through its paces under the bright lights of the Keeneland sales pavilion, one thing becomes immediately clear to anyone who knows what they’re looking at – this man is extremely good at his job.

On its surface, the concept of a person standing at the other end of a shank from a horse does not sound like a complicated interaction, but the steady-handed ease in which Anderson can bring a jittery yearling into line or how he helps a star look like a superstar can come off more like a carefully choreographed dance. If there is space between the dance partners, he fills it seamlessly. When it’s time to let the horse have their solo number, he’s able to stand at the cusp of the spotlight with just enough control to rein his partner in if it’s needed.

Like any good dance routine, part of the trick is making the complicated moves and tiny nonverbal communications with one’s partner seem routine, and this is Anderson’s gift. The energy he puts out is often reflected in the horse he’s handling, so he has developed an otherworldly ability to stay calm under whatever circumstance comes striding into the ring.

“If somebody is really willing to listen and learn, they can learn it, but also, it’s a God-given thing,” Anderson said. ”For me, it’s a gift. I do a lot with the horses, and they don’t seem to mind. I can have the shank and walk underneath their belly with just me and them. They just stand there and take it in, just like I do. It’s amazing. I love horses, always loved them.”

The way Anderson approaches horses comes naturally to him, but it’s not from a generational history in horsemanship. His family had farm animals growing up in Jamaica – goats, pigs, and chickens – and he was taught from early on to handle them gently, but his introduction to horses came from a nearby farm he passed every day coming and going from home. At 18, he went to work there.

The farm was the stable for Eileen Cliggott, one of Jamaica’s cornerstone trainers, and the trailblazer for female conditioners in the country. Her operation was a factory for producing successful participants in the racing industry, both on the island and beyond, including jockey Richard Depass, who became a multiple Grade 3-winning rider in the U.S.

Anderson quickly got a complete equine education working under Cliggott and other local trainers.

“As a groom down in Jamaica, you have to ride your own horses,” he said. “You come in for the morning, groom them, saddle them up, take them to the track, and gallop them. When it comes to breezing, they’ll get a jockey to ride them.”

During his time in the stables, Anderson began working with a filly shipped in from New York named Distincly Restless, who quickly became attached to him. The filly was owned by Mr. and Mrs. John Munroe, who noticed the bond forming, and also recognized the ability Anderson had to handle a horse.

“[Mrs. Munroe] asked me to hold a filly so she could take a picture, and she showed me what to do – one leg like this and the other like this – so I did it,” Anderson said. “Her husband was over there talking to the trainer, and she yelled out, ‘John, John, John. Look at this. Look at how he holds this horse perfectly. He’s a natural.’

“The filly ran and beat the boys in the first race she was in, and they decided they wanted to bring her back to the States,” he continued. “The filly was so attached to me, they said, ‘Well, we’d better take you with her.’”

Anderson, about 21 years old at the time, wasn’t able to secure a permanent visa in time to follow the filly back to New York, but he tracked the mare’s career, and when she retired to Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky, he went to join her in 1981.

Anderson credited the Taylor Made operation for taking his horsemanship skills to the next level, learning under Duncan Taylor and his brothers. His time there ultimately led to him landing his job as a ringman at Keeneland, after his skill showing horses was noticed by the auction company’s yearling inspection team. He started with Keeneland during the 1988 November sale.

The sales are typicaly a rapid-fire ordeal, with a two-person crew of ringmen trading off horses. The ones with big hopes might come with a scouting report from the sellers, but for the most part, Anderson and his co-workers are coming in cold every time a horse steps in. With that being said, Anderson has developed a few skills to help him meet each new incoming challenge.

“Most of the time, I have a few seconds to read the horse,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll stand at the back door and watch them out there and see how they are. I’ll see them acting up with the person out there, and as soon as they hit my hand, it’s a different horse. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘That horse was so unruly back there, and as soon as you took them, they just changed. What did you do?’”

So, what does he do? He keeps an even keel and lets the horses feel that energy.

“I have no nervousness in me, that’s number one,” Anderson said. “The horse can feel you, all the vibes coming from you, so I try not to let that out there. Plus, I’ve never really had one that I’ve been scared of that much, unless he’s really big and stud- dish and wants to run over you. Some broodmares are bad, but the yearlings are really easy.”

Keeneland’s team of ringmen and women is stacked top-to-bottom with elite handlers of horses, and Anderson’s contemporaries recognize his unique ability to get a horse to show its best side.

“Cordell is one of the best that’s ever done it,” said Ron Hill, who has worked with Anderson for the better part of two decades. “He and I have a different style, but we get to the same point. His work speaks for itself. There’s no man alive that’s held as many million-dollar horses as Cordell Anderson. That kind of says it all.”

With an accolade like that, one might get the idea that seven- figure horses would eventually blur together for Anderson, but that would be a mistake. Getting a chance to spend some time with a horse as it goes from promise to profit hasn’t gotten old yet, instead giving him another chance to add to his prestigious list.

In particular, Anderson said he fondly remembered the sale of Fusaichi Pegasus, a Mr. Prospector colt co-bred and consigned by Arthur Hancock III’s Stone Farm that sold for $4 million at the the 1998 Keeneland July sale. He went on to win the 2000 Kentucky Derby and finish second in the Preakness Stakes.

“Arthur told me this horse was going to sell good, and he said ‘When you get him, start smiling, because your smile really works,’” Anderson said. “He was a big horse. I thought he was going to give me a little trouble, but he didn’t do anything. A lot of the time, they come in there and just freeze. That sound from up above their head with the auctioneers, they start wondering where in the heck this thing is coming from.”

For all of the expensive horses Anderson has guided through the ring, his recollection is just as strong for the lesser-priced horses who went on to outrun their hammer prices.

One that stuck out in his memory was Curlin, a Smart Strike colt who sold to Kenny McPeek, as agent, for $57,000 at the 2005 September sale. He went on to become a Hall of Famer, two-time Horse of the Year, earner of over $10 million, and one of the top commercial sires in today’s marketplace.

“When I saw Curlin was selling for that low, I was out there stretching my head like, ‘Come on, aren’t you guys gonna buy this horse?’” he said. “There was just something about Curlin that I liked a lot.”

This yearling sale season is unlike any in memory, and that extends to inside the ring, where both Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton have decided against using ringmen to limit potential COVID-19 exposure contacts. Instead, showpeople with the individual consignors are holding on to the horses throughout their time in the ring, while one of Keeneland’s regular ringmen stands to the side to provide guidance if it’s needed, or step in if a yearling becomes too unruly.

It’s a different September for Anderson, who lives in Lexington, Ky., with his son William, but he’s got plenty to keep him busy working for the barn of owner Jim McIngvale. After gaining national exposure as one of the main sets of hands on Eclipse Award winner Runhappy, he works with several of Runhappy’s debut crop of juveniles owned by McIngvale.

Anderson, 64, is well aware of his reputation as a prodigious calming influence for horses, and he said people still ask him how he does what he does. The root of the question, though, has changed from wanting to know the answer out of amazement after a big sale to wanting to know so they can emulate it themselves. He pointed out fellow Keeneland ringman Aaron Kennedy as a younger person in the industry with a bright future as a “go-to” person to handle the big horses.

To anyone else looking to follow in Anderson’s footsteps, he said having soft hands and a Teflon demeanor were crucial. Like a good dance partner, the horse will follow your lead.

“All you have to do is just be patient, be calm, smile, don’t let anything bother you,” he said. “If you let things bother you, that’s the thing that will most throw you off. Your boss might say something to you that you get mad about, and everything goes out of whack. Once your adrenaline starts, everything gets all screwed up, so you don’t want that. You have to swallow it and go on.”

The post ‘It’s A Gift’: The Calming Influence Of Cordell Anderson appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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