Like so many little girls, Carolann McGee fell in love with horses, and not even a potentially traumatic experience at age 9 could throw her off the track.
"My aunt took me on a trail ride near Route 110," said McGee, 25, who grew up in Amityville. "I fell off, and my jacket got caught in the saddle. The horse was dragging me along and I was laughing hysterically the whole time. The instructor said, 'I think this kid needs some riding lessons.' "
McGee took them through high school, and 16 years later, she's in the big time. For almost a year, she has been an assistant trainer to Graham Motion, one of the world's most respected horsemen. On Nov. 1, Main Sequence, whom McGee helped nurse back to health last winter, won the $3-million Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita. Defeating highly regarded Europeans Flintshire and Telescope capped a 4-for-4 season that has made the 5-year-old gelding a leading contender for Horse of the Year.
As a teenager, during summer vacations from Academy of St. Joseph in Brentwood, McGee trained show horses in Indiana with a family friend. She became an accomplished rider, playing polo during a college internship at Lane's End Farm in Kentucky. After graduating from Purdue University in May 2012 with a degree in animal science, she went to work for Motion at Fair Hill, a 300-acre training center in rural Maryland.
Her entry-level job, hot walker, involved leading thoroughbreds in circles to gear them down after workouts. The pay: about $300 a week. Yet as McGee once tweeted: "Sometimes the best medicine is to spend 25 minutes walking counterclockwise with a horse by your side."
Good for the soul, yes, but not quite the career path her parents, Amityville residents Frank and Janet McGee, envisioned.
They got pretty edgy 2 1/2 years ago when Carolann told them she'd be working in a barn for peanuts. "My parents are not real horse people," McGee said, "but gradually they've gotten into it. But back then, I think their heads started spinning. They couldn't believe it after they'd spent all that money for college."
No, they couldn't. "She'd always been a horse person," Janet McGee said, "but this was still a big surprise after paying for a college education."
Money means little to racetrackers, and neither does free time. McGee rises before the sun, gets a day off every two weeks and regularly puts in 14- and 15-hour days. When supervising 54 horses, the responsibility never ends. She's up by 4:30, at the barn by 5:15. She checks the feed tubs to make sure every horse is eating up, because if not, it's a danger sign. She runs her hands over every horse's legs, all 216 of them, looking for swelling or soreness, before conferring with Motion. By 6:30, it's riders up for workouts at a place where she calls mornings "mysterious and magical."
"I never don't want to go to work," McGee said. "Everyone at the racetrack is like that, and it's something you either have in you or you don't. I know a lot of people who complain about their jobs and say they live for the weekend, but that's not me."
Motion, a 50-year-old Englishman, won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, and his patient, hands-on approach convinced McGee he'd be an ideal boss.
"Graham listens to his horses and what they're telling him," she said. "He has great instincts."
Hiring her was another nice move.
"Carolann has done very well with us and moved up very quickly through the ranks, from hot walker to groom to training," Motion said by phone. "She has a very likable personality and gets along well with the horses and the people. Her work with Main Sequence was an important part of his therapy."
The Kentucky-bred began his career brilliantly for England-based trainer David Lanigan, going 4-for-4 before finishing second in the 2012 Epsom Derby, the model for the one in Louisville. Then the rising star went 0-for-9 (two seconds, three thirds) against top competition until October 2013. Lanigan thought a change of scenery might help, so owner-breeder Flaxman Holdings sent Main Sequence to the United States late last year. While in quarantine at Newburgh, New York, he came down with pneumonia.
"For three weeks, he was too sick to travel to us," Motion said, and he still wasn't himself when he arrived at McGee's barn in late January. McGee said he needed medication "for about a month," and his only exercise consisted of two daily walks.
"What was cool was we got to start from scratch with him," she said. "We gave him a lot of love and attention, and he's a cool horse to be around. He knew he was something special."
On a cold, bright February morning, McGee sensed Main Sequence was on the way back. "We put two blankets on him and took him out in the sunshine," she said. "He has a way of communicating what he needs, and he just wanted to stand there and feel the warmth."
By late May, he was working out regularly, and in early July, he began his undefeated run in Grade I races in the United Nations at Monmouth Park.
McGee watched the Turf from Laurel in Maryland, where she'd just saddled two winners for Motion. "We were on Cloud 9 for Main Sequence," she said. "We all got very excited."
As usual, Main Sequence created drama, surging from ninth under John Velazquez to get up by a half-length. In the United Nations, the Sword Dancer at Saratoga and the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park, he'd rallied to win by a quarter of a length, a head and a quarter of a length, respectively. "He likes to make us sweat," McGee said.
"We all have gotten very emotional about Main Sequence, and to see the end result of all your hard work is so rewarding. I know I'm addicted to horses. They're like my children."