Twenty Questions with Horse Whisperer Kerry Thomas

The Life
Kerry Thomas with Grade 1 winner Majestic Harbor. (Courtesy Loren Hebel-Osborne)

Kerry Thomas is a pioneer of equine athletic psychology and herd dynamics. Over years of study Thomas has worked to innovate how equine athletes are evaluated by focusing on the mental and emotional capacities of the horse in order to optimize their physical talent. Thomas realized it was emotional conformation and not physical conformation that governed the dynamics of a herd.

Founded in 2008 by Thomas and supported by Pete Denk, Thomas Herding Technique has helped identify past Kentucky Derby winners Animal Kingdom, I’ll Have Another, and Orb, while also denoting past winners like California Chrome and Always Dreaming as top contenders headed into the run for the roses. Each year a full evaluation of the Kentucky Derby contenders is sold through Brisnet and later made available on their new website

We caught up with Thomas recently to get the latest from this horse whisperer:

1. How many horses have you been studying in the lead-up to the 2018 Kentucky Derby and can you explain what you are looking for in order to identify the top contenders?

The process of studying the horses starts casually throughout the year, but because it takes so much time to fully evaluate every race of each horse actually in, we do not start the “hammer-down” work until we are sure a particular horse is in or very likely in. One of the key processes, a topic I am writing about for this year’s Kentucky Derby Analysis introduction section, which we provide through Brisnet, is identifying those horses with the highest probability of being able to handle the stress. It's one thing for a horse to have the physical aptitude to finish a task, but another for the horse to have the mental aptitude to fully optimize their physical talent, under stress, over a length of time. Ascertaining those psychological athletes who have sensory soundness and herd dynamic strength enough to be competitive is essential; it is the difference between a horse running in space and running through space.

Thomas with champion RunHappy.
Thomas with champion Runhappy. (Courtesy Kerry Thomas)

2. In your experience, what’s the most valuable characteristic that you find in the most successful of the race horses you study?

Complete sensory soundness and a balance in their herd dynamic; the ability to absorb multiple stresses within the environment is a key to adaptability and allows horses to be competitive even during times of stress.

3. What’s the biggest gamble you ever scored at the races?

Well I think this question is a better question for my business partner Pete Denk who is the handicapper between us, as I do not gamble. But if we broaden the question a bit, when I'll Have Another won I was in a booth at the Derby with Danny Glover and Debra Messing and I informed them to place bets on I'll Have Another, and they were pretty excited. I had to hold Debra from leaning too far over the railing!

4. When did your introduction to Thoroughbred racing occur?

My grandfather loved to go to the fox hunts and steeplechases when I was a kid, and I think this was probably my first introduction to racing per se. But my fascination with elite horse athletes, and the one horse and moment that truly set me on this course without further hesitation was having the opportunity to spend just a few fleeting moments with Barbaro at New Bolton Center during that ordeal. The feel, it was instinctive and I know everyone seems to have a story about him, but for me it was a magic moment, looking into his eyes and just knowing. That was it, I knew I'd found my platform to combine my love of high level sports with horses. I have a photo of him on my wall, and I look him in the eyes even now and recall that feeling.

5. What’s your favorite place at the racetrack to watch a race?

I love the rail like most folks at the finish line, I like to close my eyes and hear them, block everything out and listen. I like doing the same thing while witnessing training, I have found you can feel a great deal about the horse if you close your eyes and listen.

6. What is an out-of-the-box idea you have for Thoroughbred racing?

All race replays to be in HD!? Is that too much to ask? I think we need to treat our sport like the professional sport that it is, and I think that to broaden the interest, the beautiful emotional connection with the horse athletes needs to be showcased. There should be a TV show about it.

7. Which racing and non-racing websites do you read daily?

I find myself visiting TDN, Equibase, and ABR for various things. Outside of the industry I really only scan MLB and NFL. I like the History Channel a lot too.

8. What three people in racing would you most like to have dinner with?

Frank Stronach, to discuss innovations to enhance the human-horse connection that I think is essential in growing our sport. I think it would be fun to chat about patterns of behavior and patterns of motion inherent in the horse psychology with Mike Smith, and the many applications of the psychology of the equine athlete and behavioral genetics with Sheikh Mohammed. But I have to say I most enjoy the behind-the-scenes conversations with the dedicated, hard-working folks on the backstretch who give their lives and passion often unnoted, to share in their thoughts and stories and ideas. You can learn a lot when you listen.

Thomas with a therapy horse.
Thomas with a baby goat and a therapy horse. (Courtesy Kerry Thomas)

9. What three people outside of racing would you like to have dinner with?

My late father to thank him for things I only understood until later in life. My high school teacher, Mrs. Massie, for listening to me and thoughtfully engaging me in my ideas and thoughts and making it OK to dream big from small town. The brain surgeon who saved my nephew’s life.

10. Where can the best racetrack food be found?

I think it's a tie for me between Keeneland's track kitchen and Oaklawn Park’s.

11. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Once during a horse therapy session (I'm really into human/horse emotional wellness therapy), a little girl in a wheelchair with emotional and physical challenges and I were working with a sweet old gelding. When the two of them "connected" you could see they understood one another's emotions, and the little girl, for the first time in what her parents said was forever, smiled, laughed, and cried from joy. Just that one moment with the horse transformed her outlook on life. I still get blurry eyes when I think of this moment. Giving someone hope, whenever I can, is the thing I take pride in more than anything else in life. We have to help one another, it's the only way. No winner's circle can replace moments like these for me.

12. What is your philosophy on life?

I have many maxims which I post on Twitter or Facebook, but I think this sums me up: "The first step in realizing your dreams, is believing that you can."

13. What’s your favorite animal (other than a horse)?

Cat! Let me explain, when I was growing up all I wanted to be was a wildlife researcher who studied mountain lions. Now I travel so often that my only pet at home is a cat, because he doesn't care if I'm home or not, just leave the garage open and make sure there is food and water!

14. What is your favorite non-Thoroughbred racing sports event that you have attended?

I love baseball, so attending a World Series game in Philadelphia against the Yankees was pretty cool.

15. What are three words that define what Thoroughbred Racing means to you?

Learn, grow, innovate.

16. Who is your favorite all-time racehorse?


17. What is your favorite international racing event?

Melbourne Cup

Thomas inspects a yearling Thoroughbred.
Thomas inspects a yearling Thoroughbred. (Melissa Bauer-Herzog/America's Best Racing)

18. What are three ways you think the industry can attract more fans to the sport of horse racing?

We have to connect with "outsiders" on an emotional level. You don't have to know how to read the (Daily Racing) Form to fall in love with the sport. We need to showcase the horse athletes not for their speed figs, but for their “color,” who they are, and their unique character traits so that outsiders see more than numbers. We need to think of ourselves as a professional sport and focus on racing. I worry the industry is a breeding and sales industry more than racing, and the mom-and-pop would-be owners can't afford to compete. We need depth of ownership and quality fields presented in a professional manner. I worry about implosion when it seems only a select few can afford to compete against each other; instead of growing the sport it seems to condense it to a place that only a small handful can buy a good prospect, and only a handful of trainers have access to all of these. But that's just my casual opinion, smarter folks than me may think very differently.

19. Del Mar or Saratoga?

I love Saratoga but I really love the ocean ...

20. Will there be a Triple Crown winner in 2018?

I'd like to say yes but I'm just not fully convinced. It's always possible, though very difficult, but it's in the "possible" where we chase our dreams.

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