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Barrister in the Barn : Describing Darrell Vienna as Simply a Horse Trainer Does Not Really Do Him Justice--He's Also an Attorney


Darrell Vienna, something of a Renaissance man, never envisioned himself training thoroughbreds.

He was interested in horses as a youngster, but his passion then was the rodeo. He grew up competing as a bull rider and bareback bronc rider in high school, then professionally while attending UCLA.

Nor did Vienna, who is from Los Angeles, ever see himself practicing law. He gave it no thought, even though he has an inquiring mind and always is eager for mental stimulation.

So, at 50, what is Vienna doing with his life?

He is training race horses. In fact, he is 20 years into a successful career. Three of the horses he trained, Native Paster, Classy Women and Finder's Fortune, hold world records. He trained a Breeders' Cup and Eclipse Award winner, Gilded Time, and has won major stakes races with horses such as Fly Till Dawn, Mountain Bear, Drumalis and Short Sleeves.

He is also an attorney.

He was well over 40 when he went to law school, passed the bar in 1994 and has a practice with partner Shauna Weeks. Among their clients have been trainers Bobby Frankel, Gary Jones and Vladimir Cerin, who were exonerated after horses they had trained tested positive for illegal substances, and jockey Corey Nakatani, who was suspended early last year after a whipping incident past the wire in a race at Santa Anita.

A current client is jockey Pat Valenzuela, who was arrested and charged last fall with two misdemeanors, vandalism and being under the influence of a controlled substance. Valenzuela pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in December and is due back in court in April.

Attorney. Trainer. Those jobs wouldn't seem to go hand in hand. But Vienna, married and a father of two, seems to be making the vocational merger work.

Still, there have been some problems.

His decision to go to law school cost him a couple of owners, he said, among them Josephine Gleis, whose best horse, Fly Till Dawn, won several important stakes in the early '90s. And Vienna also lost some time with his children--daughter Remy, 12, and son Christopher, 18 and a student at UCLA.

"But I have a good relationship with them," he said.

Several longtime owners remain and the barn, with 32 horses, certainly hasn't suffered because of the boss' double duty. Vienna finished 1996 with 38 winners from 155 starters and has won with six of his first 17 starters at the current Santa Anita meeting, including Belle's Flag in Sunday's $213,200 La Canada Stakes.

He doesn't mind delegating responsibility and has confidence in his assistant, Tim Pinfield, a former jockey in England who has been with him for about four years.

"He's a very easy man to work for," said Pinfield, who has also worked for Charlie Whittingham. "He's very intelligent and he can read people well. We've got a pretty good relationship and we discuss everything that goes on around the barn.

"There's not much that slips his mind. He gives everything he says a lot of thought, and things you say to him don't go in one ear and out the other. He puts a lot of trust in me to hold down the fort, but you can't pull the wool over his eyes."

Working two jobs, Vienna is not a man with lot of time on his hands.

"You have no idea how much time you waste in a day until you have a lot of things to do," he said recently in his Pasadena office. "I get to the barn [usually at 7 a.m.] and stay until the work is done and that can be either 9:30 [a.m] or 12:30 [p.m.], go to the [law] office, go to court, if I have to, or go to the races, if necessary. And I only go when I have business. I don't go just to watch the races.

"I'll come back, go to dinner, then come back here and work if I have to.

"Horse training is overrated, in terms of what you need to do. The proof of that is that there are people who basically walk off the street and win races. Being a horse trainer is elevated beyond what it really is."

Vienna got into the training business after his college-rodeo days, and after spending time working with show horses with his wife Kristen, an accomplished rider whom he met at UCLA.

"What I learned as a kid and through the rodeo was that you could make a horse do just about anything by forcing him or tricking him," he said.

"From [Kristen], I learned a different approach that had more to do with training them, preparing them and understanding them in a different way."

His father-in-law, who had some race horses, asked if Vienna would be interested in owning a thoroughbred.

"I bought one and it was disastrous," he remembered.

"It wasn't a good experience, but I spent a lot of time at the track and I kind of liked it and [training] looked pretty easy to me."

Eventually, he and partners from his pharmaceutical business bought more horses, had some success, then branched out, after some initial reluctance, and took on clients.

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