Breeders' Cup Presents Connections: 'If You Have Dreams, You Have To Take A Chance And Follow Them' - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘If You Have Dreams, You Have To Take A Chance And Follow Them’

Jeff Hiles

There's something to be said for a person who can not only recognize when they are making poor choices, but who can also step up and make the necessary changes to get back on track.

Especially when that person goes it alone.

Trainer Jeff Hiles' brighter path continues to pay dividends as he celebrated a win for the second year in a row in the $108,433 Claiming Crown Iron Horse Starter Stakes. This year, it was the $8,000 claim Time For Trouble who delivered a 3 ¼-length victory in the 1 1/16-mile contest.

The Churchill Downs winner's circle is a far cry from where Hiles found himself after returning from a five-year stint with the Marine Corps. He isn't proud of the decisions he made during the ensuing years, and at age 35 he found himself in a rut both personally and professionally.

“I was full of bad decisions when I got home,” Hiles said. “But I felt that I was capable of achieving so much more. I just started taking small steps, and I decided I wanted to follow my dreams of becoming a horse trainer like my father.”

That's Rick Hiles, veteran trainer of over 650 winners and longtime president of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. 

Jeff Hiles certainly inherited his father's passion for the horses, and he recalls many late nights at the barn when he was a teenager.

“Once you get involved with them, it just becomes a part of you,” Hiles said. “I was kind of a troubled teen, so at night I would go out to the barn there at Churchill and just sit in the barn there with the horses. It was relaxing for my anxiety; they've always been kind of a relief for me.”

With that new goal and his equine passion at the front of his mind, Hiles moved back to Kentucky and took a job at a car dealership in Lexington. Though he made good money, it was a call from trainer Kenny McPeek that allowed Hiles to quickly transition back to the racetrack.

“All the horses were coming in from Florida, so I quit my job and started making almost nothing as a hotwalker,” said Hiles. “I thought I needed to work my way through the ranks. I worked my tail off to begin my career with Kenny. I sort of did anything we needed around the barn – clean stalls, groom, push feed carts and hot walk. If you want something bad enough, you'll do anything.”

The hardest part wasn't the work; it was overcoming the lack of support as he made the transition.

“Everybody told me to do the opposite of what I was doing – I can't think of one person who said, 'Follow your dreams,'” Hiles recalled. “But I think you can achieve anything you want as long as you work hard. If you have dreams, you have to take a chance and follow them because if you don't, one day you're going to regret it. I don't want to lay on my deathbed and think, 'I wish I had done this.'

“Horse racing is a lot of work but well worth it in the long run. I love this sport and my country. I'm glad I was able to serve in the Marines, then return to the industry I love.”

Hiles progressed quickly, moving up to the position as McPeek's Churchill Downs-based assistant trainer. 

After a few years, Hiles' best friend Mickey Bailew started encouraging him to go out on his own. 

“He's 25 years older than I am, but he's my best friend,” Hiles said. “He really pushed me, and he claimed my first horse for me in 2018 with Silver Time Racing. Honestly, I struggled my ass off for the first 2 1/2 years. I hauled horses on the side so that I could keep supporting my family.

“Mickey helped me a lot, and I never gave up. I don't know what it is. I just felt like this was what I was meant to do.”

Bailew passed away in 2020, just before Hiles' career started to take off.

“I know he'd be proud of me,” Hiles said. 

It was in the spring of 2021 that Hiles was hired by former trainer Billy Denzik, now the racing manager for Louisville, Ky., businessman Brook Smith's Rocket Ship Racing. 

“I don't know if the universe shifted or what,” Hiles quipped. “I travel with all my horses, and I haul them myself. I've run at a bunch of different places and I'm always there, so a lot of the clients that I've picked up, and my big client, Brook Smith, they noticed that. You know, attention to details. It's just worked out. Everything has worked out for me. Been lucky.”

Hiles improved his record from seven wins in 2020 to 15 wins in 2021, and this year the 42-year-old trainer has won 20 races and is closing in on $1 million in earnings.

His Claiming Crown winner, Time For Trouble, who Hiles owns in partnership with Paul Parker, is responsible for four of those wins in 2022.

Time For Trouble wins the Claiming Crown – The Iron Horse – Kent Stirling Memorial

The 5-year-old son of English Channel was an $8,000 claim at Churchill Downs on June 18, 2021. 

“When I saw him I didn't think much of him; he's little bitty,” Hiles said. “The biggest thing with claiming one, though, is getting one that's sound. You'd think with big horses, they would go further, but it's actually the opposite. I'm 6'4”, and when I used to run in the Marines I got passed all the time by the little guys! 

“It's because it takes me so much more energy to complete a stride than it does someone smaller; the same is true in horses.”

Time For Trouble hadn't run in especially long races over his career up to that point, and Hiles believed both his breeding and size would be beneficial for those longer spots.

The gelding won at first asking in a starter allowance at Belterra Park, then rebounded with a big second-place finish in a 1 ½-mile starter allowance at the lucrative Kentucky Downs meet. Time For Trouble ran poorly in his next start, so Hiles gave him the winter off and didn't run the gelding again until July of 2022.

That patience was rewarded with a three-race win streak: two starter allowances at Belterra and one at Kentucky Downs were added to the gelding's resume. In his final prep for the Claiming Crown, Time For Trouble ran second in a starter allowance at Keeneland.

Walking into the Churchill paddock with Time For Trouble on Claiming Crown day, Nov. 12, Hiles was confident.

“I thought he had as good a shot as anybody else,” Hiles said. “I was a little concerned about the distance (1 1/16 miles), that it might be too short. We were gonna enter him in the grass race (Emerald, 1 1/16 miles on turf), but fortunately we didn't because it came off the grass anyway (due to wet conditions). He's got a small foot and so I thought he'd handle the mud.”

Entering the winner's circle, Hiles quietly took the victory in stride.

“It felt like we made the right move and it paid off,” he said. “It's good to win a race at any track, and it was exciting for me because I won the race last year with Blue Steel. “All the guys were excited, and Paul's kids were excited, so I was more happy for them than I was for myself. I just felt like I did my job.”

Trainer Jeff Hiles, center in ball cap, celebrates with the connections of Time For Trouble after his victory in the Claiming Crown – The Iron Horse – Kent Stirling Memorial
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