It isn’t every day that a former claimer enters a Grade 1 race. It’s even less often that such a horse runs well at the sport’s top level, but that’s exactly what the flashy Kneedeepinsnow accomplished when he finished second behind reigning sprint champion Jackie’s Warrior in last weekend’s Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap.
Trainer Matt Shirer, who dropped the claim for $80,000 on the 6-year-old in April of this year, watched the Vanderbilt from the Saratoga horsemen’s lounge where it was quiet. For the minute and 10 seconds it took to complete the six furlongs, time slowed down as Shirer’s entire focus narrowed on one big-screen television.
“I thought at the time he was a little bit flat out of the gate,” Shirer admitted, “but that was also somewhat our race strategy. Everybody thought this horse was all speed and that he would be part of the pace, but this horse does whatever you want. I told Ricardo (jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr.), ‘Don’t try to go for the lead, don’t use him, just try to get one run and see where he ends up.’
“Obviously we were at the back of the field early, and the pace didn’t seem crazy fast up front, so I thought that could spell trouble for us. He also took a bunch of dirt early in the race, and I didn’t know how he would handle that, either. Finally he started to make a little move around the three-eighths pole. Then Ricardo took him outside and got him a clear run, and he switched leads a little late, but that’s kind of been his MO for a while. Then he really hit another gear and finished strong, passing the rest of the field except for Jackie’s Warrior.”
The second-place finish was Shirer’s first graded stakes placing, coming seven years into the training career of the Ohio native who fell in love with the sport watching the Kentucky Derby on television.
“Nobody in my family has anything to do with horses or racing,” said Shirer. “I wasn’t that kid who grew up around horses or snuck his way into the racetrack. I actually got interested in horse racing by watching the Kentucky Derby. I don’t know what it was, it just really got my attention. I specifically remember the year Nick Zito saddled five horses in the Derby (2005). I started following racing then.”
Shirer attended Ohio Wesleyan University to play on the division three basketball team, and took the opportunity to enter the school’s animal science program. During the summers, he got a job walking hots at Thistledown near Cleveland.
“I had never been to the racetrack before, let alone the backside,” Shirer said. “I had no clue what I was doing, I just wanted to learn. I did that for a few summers, and when I graduated, I went back to the track and worked full-time.”
Student loans caught up to him, however, so Shirer opted to work for his brother-in-law’s roofing company where he could make more money. Still, the lure of the backstretch never disappeared.
When Shirer came across trainer Kenny McPeek’s website years later, he took a chance and sent an email describing his experience. McPeek responded immediately and offered Shirer a job at Churchill Downs.
For the next three years Shirer served as foreman and assistant trainer for McPeek’s stable, working with horses like Grade 1 winners Pure Fun, Rosalind, and Golden Ticket, as well as Kentucky Derby participants Frac Daddy and Java’s War.
In late 2015, Shirer decided to take the trainer’s test and set out on his own.
“I learned a lot from Kenny, but I wanted to be able to train my own horses,” Shirer said. “There comes a certain point, I guess, where you want to control your own life, to be the boss.
“I told Kenny what my intentions were, we ended on good terms, and I literally went to take my trainer’s license (test) the next day. (Kentucky steward) Barbara Borden asked me why I wanted to take the test if I didn’t have any horses to train, and I told her my plan was to claim a few. That was October of 2015. I passed the test and it was time to start claiming. I was really green. I had never dropped a (claiming) slip before. Everything in this business I’ve just had to learn from the ground up. I claimed a horse at Churchill and won my first race in December at Turfway.”
The path Shirer has carved out for himself has never been an easy one. There were certainly times that money got tight and horses grew scarce, but he was determined to make his way in the business and never gave up.
“I feel like I don’t want to come off as arrogant, but I work hard, and I can out-work a lot of people,” Shirer said. “I’m pretty dedicated to what I do. I think that comes from not growing up in the business, not having big connections. Sometimes those things help people progress, but for me it wasn’t an option so I had to lean on my work ethic. A lot of what I did in the beginning was claiming, so I was looking at as many forms as I can, doing as much homework and as much work as I can, and I think that sets me apart a little bit.
“Every so often, you catch a break. An owner notices that you’re doing well and will ask you to claim a horse for them. My first few years of training, I was almost never sent a horse, I always had to claim something, so I had to find horses that I wanted and had a plan for. I think that probably helped my percentage. When you get sent a horse, you don’t have any input. You just have to do the best with what they give you. As a claiming trainer, I was at least able to pick out the horses I wanted and run them where I wanted.”
It was one such claiming owner, Marshall Gramm of Ten Strike Racing, that picked out Kneedeepinsnow when the horse was entered for an $80,000 tag at Keeneland. Gramm sent the horse to Shirer, and asked him to take a look.
“I thought he looked good on paper, but the replays of his races are what really put me over the top,” Shirer said. “He just had a couple excuses for his races, like traffic problems, and that’s just racing luck.”
Luck certainly plays a role in the claiming process. After Kneedeepinsnow dominated that Keeneland field by 3 ½ lengths, Shirer learned that one other party had dropped a claiming slip on the gelding. Which claim goes through is left up to the luck of the draw.
“The way he ran that day, obviously you think this could be a good horse here,” Shirer said. “So the two-way shake was so much more nerve-wracking than a 10-way shake! Luckily we won it.”
Jeremy Sussman, Marshall Gramm, and Cory Moelis are now the three owners behind Kneedeepinsnow, who has covered his purchase price with earnings of $100,810 in just three starts, never finishing worse than third.
Interestingly, Kneedeepinsnow had been entered in a stakes race at Ellis Park the week before the Vanderbilt, but Shirer and the owners discussed skipping that race in favor of taking the shot at Saratoga.
“He trains so well and he’s so classy in the mornings,” Shirer said of Kneedeepinsnow. “Those specific owners, they all come up to Saratoga for the races. We decided to take a shot since it would be a small field and Jackie’s Warrior was likely going to scare everybody off. There were other good horses in there but we felt we fit with those, so we scratched at Ellis and entered at Saratoga and he ends up running second!”
It could be the kind of effort that gets Shirer noticed. With a 20-horse stable and 11 wins from 57 starts in 2022, Shirer is poised to develop his operation even more successfully in years to come.
“A lot of people kind of get that one big horse and it kind of makes their career, helps them move up in the business a bit,” he said. “Hopefully a horse like this does that for me, but you never know!”