Written by Victoria Peace
Over the course of his 56-year-long career in horse racing, Michael Pearson has confronted his fair share of challenges — from personal tragedies to problems that have impacted the entire racing industry. Others might have chosen to step away. But not Pearson. For him, “It’s about the horses and always has been. There’s nothing I’d rather do.” This dedication and perseverance has made him not only a successful trainer and breeder, but also a fierce advocate for horse racing in the Commonwealth. While the road hasn’t always been easy, Pearson has continuously found ways to support and serve the sport that he loves.
Growing up, Pearson’s father was a professional huntsman and farm manager in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the tender age of 11, Pearson started exercising racehorses on his father’s farm and his love affair with the sport began. When his family moved back to their farm in Hume, Virginia, Pearson was not ready to give up his racing ambitions — as soon as he could get his driver’s license, he left for the track.
Pearson worked as an exercise rider and occasionally as a jockey. To keep up with the demanding race schedule, he spent a lot of time on the road traveling between New York, New Jersey, and Florida. However, he soon had an epiphany that would change the course of his career. One day, Pearson was discussing retirement plans with his friend Bowles Bond, an 84-year-old trainer and future Racing Hall of Fame inductee. Bond said that when he was finished, he wanted to go back to his family farm in Monkton, Maryland. At that moment, Pearson realized he didn’t want to wait that long to put down roots someplace and build something.
The track may have been where his career got started but, according to Pearson, “Virginia is a place to live.” He added that the “history, heritage, and tradition of horse racing in the Commonwealth” makes the state particularly desirable for people involved in the racing industry. When he looks out over the rolling land that surrounds his farm, one thought that always brings him joy is that he has “forever in these hills.”
Mike Pearson riding Jolly’s Clump in 1975 during his preparation for his 1976 Grand National campaign.
When Pearson returned to Virginia, he initially rode in some point-to-point races. Then, aided by the contacts established during his time at the track and in the steeplechasing world, he commenced his training career. His first win as a trainer under rules came in 1971 with a horse named Run Ruler. While he was based out of Virginia, he still travelled back and forth to the track seasonally.
For the next few decades, Pearson focused on expanding his training and breeding operation. However, in 1993, tragedy struck when an arsonist burned down his barn, killing all but two of his horses. While Pearson acknowledged that “most people who lose their entire livelihood give up,” he was “particularly proud that he was able to keep going.” In what seemed like a small miracle, after rest, recovery, and conditioning, the two horses that survived the fire both won their next start on the track. Following this success, Pearson, who asserts that he is “not afraid of anything or anyone,” began the slow process of rebuilding.
In addition to his work as a trainer, Pearson has served as the state steward at racetracks in five states. In this position, he enforced the rules of the track and settled disputes ranging from smoking in the shed row to stealing. Pearson stressed that he never based his decisions on who the people involved in the disputes were, but operated by the guiding principle “you have to do what is right and believe in what you do.”
For the past 20 years, Pearson has also sponsored a steeplechase series in Virginia geared toward amateur jump riders who are trying to break into the sport. The series addresses the current shortage of jump riders by helping up-and-comers gain experience on seasoned horses without having to ride against hardened professionals. To date, three riders who have participated in the series have gone on to make a name for themselves nationally.
Woods Winants aboard Keoni at the Blue Ridge Point-to-Point Races in 2019. Keoni is the first steeplechase horse that Pearson has trained in 25 years. Photo by Joanne Maisano.
And, as if Pearson does not have enough things on his plate, he is currently lobbying the Virginia General Assembly on behalf of the Virginia Harness Horse Association. While his schedule is demanding, he said he has always been “about helping racing” and is devoted to doing anything he possibly can to get the word out about the sport.
Today, one of his biggest concerns is that racing has lost the media. “You don’t see anything published about racing unless it’s critical.” In order to get racing back on the upswing with the public, Pearson believes that people need first-hand exposure to the sport. “The story of racing is so special and unique — how could one person tell it? You need to meet the people involved in it and see it for yourself.” Every chance he gets, he takes politicians and other state leaders behind the scenes to meet the horses and the jockeys at events such as the Gold Cup and the Virginia Fall Races.
In recent years, Pearson has kept his horses at his own property, Hume Stables. Currently, he has six horses in training. When asked what is next for him, Pearson simply expressed the wish that all of his horses stay healthy and are able to keep running this season. At the time of his interview, his most recent win was on February 4 at Charles Town. He raced two full sisters and they came in first and third.
When asked about horses that have stood out to him over his long career, two came to mind. The first is Jolly’s Clump. Imported from England to train with Pearson, he returned to run in point-to-point races on the English circuit. He won six races in a row and started as the favorite for winning the English Grand National in 1976. Pearson remembers him as a courageous and brave horse — he bowed a tendon during the race but still managed to finish. His owner had bet so much money on him in prior races that he had trouble getting it all out of the country and back to the states. He had to purchase cars, art, whiskey, and more horses to avoid the losses he would incur when exchanging the money back to dollars!
Mike Pearson, Cathy Belotti, Woods Winants, and John Belotti. Photo by Joanne Maisano.
The second horse that holds a special place in Pearson’s memory is Crowning Prospect, who ran on the very first day that Colonial Downs opened. Despite poor conformation and a lousy temperament, he won many races for Pearson, bringing home over $50,000 in earnings. After his racing days were over, Pearson knew it would be very difficult to find Crowning Prospect a second career. So, in keeping with his belief of always putting the horses first, he retired the gelding at his farm. Now, 30 years later, the horse’s sole job is to bring up the foals after they are weaned. When asked if his temperament had mellowed over time to make him a suitable candidate for this job, Pearson just chuckled. “I wouldn’t say that necessarily,” he said. “The weanlings do however learn to pay attention to what’s going on around them and be respectful.”
Over his long career Pearson has held many different titles, including jockey, trainer, breeder, steward, sponsor, and lobbyist. However, one thing has been consistent: his passion and love for the sport, and for the horses that make it possible. It is people like Pearson whom we have to thank for preserving the history, heritage, and tradition of horse racing in the Commonwealth for future generations. Even when faced with the latest challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pearson is finding ways to continue spreading the word about the sport, and he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. “You’re never going to find people that are more optimistic than people that breed and race their own horses,” he said. ML
Published in the March 2021 issue of Middleburg Life.