Last spring, the 50-year-old trainer looked up and down the stalls at the horses in her Florida barn and didn’t see a lot of fast ones looking back.
Cibelli is at the barn at 4 a.m. every day — earlier than most trainers — and spends the extra time searching for clues.
“There was a fellow I worked for when I first got out of school named Tony Cooper. And he did a lot of things with horses — broke babies, this that and the other,” she said from the small office inside Barn 33 at Monmouth Park this week. “He told me: ‘If you get inside a horse’s mind, you’ll figure out how to make that horse do whatever it is you want it to do.’ ”
Cibelli spends the pre-dawn hours looking for signs of the horses’ moods. She looks for which horses eagerly stick their head out of the stall and which ones cower in the back. “If they aren’t happy, they aren’t going to run,” she says. “If they’re not eating, there’s a reason they aren’t eating.”
In the spring of 2011, Cibelli didn’t feel confident about her horses and contemplated not shipping the string of thoroughbreds to Monmouth, a place her training operations have been based for the last 10 years.
Still, Cibelli came north and, after a slow start, became the first female trainer to win the Monmouth training title in 66 years of racing in Oceanport. Cibelli saddled 32 winners in 119 starts to beat the outfits of Greg Sacco (27 winners) and Scott Volk (26).
“It’s a huge achievement,” Cibelli said.
Cibelli, with the help of assistants Robert Holman and Nicole Romans, enjoyed her most successful year in 2011. The horses won 70 total races in 267 starts with 50 percent finishing in the money, and Cibelli totaled more than $1.5 million in purse money.
Cibelli, born in Leicester, England, came to the United States at age 21 after a friend called her about a job galloping race horses in Florida. She got her training license in 1987 and bounced around, working first as a private trainer and then as an assistant to Ray Stifano at Suffolk Downs in New England. Cibelli was frustrated by the atmosphere: the horses were bad, the weather was poor.
“I woke up one morning and said, ‘What the heck are you doing? You can’t keep going down this road.’ ”
Cibelli went out on her own again and moved to the Meadowlands, where she trained a couple of horses with minimal success and maintained a steady income by exercising horses for trainer Linda Rice — the first woman to win the Saratoga training title in 2009.
But then in 2002, Cibelli fell off a horse while galloping and broke her back.
“That’s when I think I got serious about life,” she said. “Up until that point — you know I’d gallop some horses, I’d buy a horse here, I’d sell it, I’d make a few dollars here, a few dollars there. Never really got serious about life until after that.”
Cibelli’s success at Monmouth in 2011 came within the claiming game. Once a new horse comes to her barn, Cieblli and her staff start over with a new exercise regimen. Cibelli is one of the few trainers who believes horses should exercise every day, from a strenuous sprint to just a gallop.
A good example was 5-year-old gelding Bombast, a New Jersey-bred, who won four straight last year after Cibelli claimed him. This year, Cibelli switched strategy and put Bombast in a turf race at the Meadowlands on May 5. In his first attempt over the grass course, he finished second by half a length in the Dan Horn Stakes.
“We got lucky,” Cibelli said while chuckling. It is the out-of-the-box approach that has worked for Cibelli and she will run Bombast, with jockey Elvis Trujillo aboard, at 5 furlongs in the sixth race today at Monmouth.
Cibelli is looking to move up into higher levels, like stakes competition. The talent level in her barn is slowly rising with a couple of promising 2-year-olds, including Purple Egg, a colt who is the son of Lion Heart, winner of the Long Branch Stakes and Haskell Invitational in 2004.
Cibelli has six horses entered at Monmouth this weekend, including 3-year-old filly Prickly Pear, who will run in tomorrow’s $60,000 Little Silver Stakes at one mile on the turf.