Jeff Hiles, a former U.S. Marine and longtime assistant to trainer Kenny McPeek, is set to start the next chapter in his life by stepping out on his own and becoming a trainer.
"This has been something I've thought about for a long time," said Hiles, a native of Franklin, Ky. "I talked with Kenny about a month ago—that I was ready to make the move—and he's been supportive of everything. I am going to finish out the meet and help ship his horses to Florida. I'll stick around at Churchill after they are gone, and hopefully by that time claim three or four more, and be ready for Oaklawn this winter."
Hiles, 39, has experienced many facets of life. He served five years in the Marines and worked his way up to his role as McPeek's assistant after he started as a groom and hot walker.
"I always wanted to get into horse racing. It's in my blood," said Hiles, the son of veteran trainer Rick Hiles, who has trained horses at Churchill Downs for more than 40 years. "I worked off and on prior to the Marines with horses but stepped away completely in 2001 to serve our country. Once I finished my service, I worked in construction and auto sales but always had the end goal to be in horse racing as my career.
"I took out my trainer's license to claim a couple of horses on my own and start things from scratch. But, just like the Marines, 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. I was based at Keeneland for a while, and when the opportunity at Churchill came about, Kenny trusted me to step up."
Hiles has experienced the true tragedies this sport can be faced with after he was one of the first people on scene when his exercise rider, Odanis Acuna, died Saturday.
"It's been a really tough few days," Hiles said. "There were times over the last couple of days when I thought to myself if I really wanted to do this anymore. Then, after a couple of failed attempts at claiming a horse, my owner (Mickey Ballew) finally got one on Sunday (Say It Softly in Churchill's 10th race) and I felt re-energized. I still had that thought on Monday morning when I woke up, but when I got back to the barn and saw her in the stall, I knew this is what I wanted to do.
"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."