Carla Gaines: From bad blood to thoroughbreds

The trainer quit counselling, after witnessing too much inhumanity, to find redemption with horses. Chris McGrath hears her story

Only human beings could be so beastly. Grieving the depravities of mankind, Carla Gaines found her most reliable solace in a horse – this animal that matched a noble bearing with a true, constant nature. She was working as a counsellor with delinquents in Alabama. Every day she encountered fresh horrors: children raped by their fathers, youths who avenged themselves violently, murderously even. "As soon as I was through work, I would get on my horse and take off riding down the trail," she remembered yesterday. "It was just a great release."

She had loved horses since girlhood, when she would wander round her grandfather's farm, shaking a bucket of corn until they came up. She would catch one, bring it back in and saddle up. As she grew up, however, her innocence took her from Eden into the Inferno. She went away to learn psychology and sociology in Virginia, and then brought her textbooks home to Alabama and its benighted underclass.

"It was a long time ago," she apologised. "I really thought I could change the world. But I saw a side of humanity I'd never seen before. Sure you read about it, studied it. Actually having to deal with it was overwhelming. I was shocked. How people can treat their own, how they can be so brutal to their own blood…" She gestured towards the thoroughbreds cooling off after their exercise, strolling round the alley next to her barn. "These guys kinda saved me – and still do. These are my kids, right here."

Borders and trellises and hanging baskets are planted with flowers; her labrador receives a series of adoring visitors. Beyond the art deco grandstand, the crags of the San Gabriel Mountains insinuate themselves briefly from the dawn vapours before again being effaced by the haze.

At 60, Gaines has now been in California for some 25 years, and her two Breeders' Cup runners tomorrow include the unbeaten Gervinho – who lies in wait for the fancied British raider, Dundonnell, in the Juvenile Turf. She has already won one Breeders' Cup race on her home track, with Dancing In Silks in the 2009 Sprint. Much to her alarm, his owner had paid £112,000 to supplement him to the field. "He wasn't a millionaire," she said. "This was his only horse. I remember looking at this beautiful black horse Darley had in the race, and here we were with this Cal-bred. I mean, the horse was doing fantastically. But for that man to put up that kind of money…"

That triumph completed a singular odyssey. Originally she only intended a sabbatical, meaning to return to a less harrowing field of psychology. She joined some friends in a "pin-hooking" venture – buying yearlings, to hone them for a two-year-old sale – in Louisiana. "I wanted to get away from society for a while," she said. "I went down to this farm and we did everything, 'broke' the babies, cleaned the stalls, the lot. I got hooked, and never went back."

Instead, Gaines ultimately headed west. Nowadays she divides her time between this barn, and the mountains: hiking through the canyons by summer, skiing by winter. "You know what?" she laughed. "Spend a winter in Louisiana some time. It was so cold, on this little farm in the Bayous. We had a schedule to meet, to get these young horses to the sale, and we would gallop them in ice storms." One day she browsed through the sunlit pages of a Californian racing magazine. There and then, she made a vow to herself: "If I stay in this business, that's where I'm going."

She set out in 1989 with one horse, who promptly won a claiming race at Vallejo, on the fair circuit in North California. By quiet increments, still with no more than 40 horses, she has become one of the most respected female trainers in the land. Slim and elegant, Gaines mocks the idea that machismo bestows any benefits in her vocation. "Maybe men are a little stronger physically, but you're not stronger than a horse," she says. "You're never going to dominate a horse because you're male. It's just in your head, how you deal with your animals."

She gazed happily at Gervinho, a big placid colt with a runic blaze. "He's a very special horse," she said. "He's almost like a racehorse reincarnated. He seems to know what it's all about, by nature. I do particularly enjoy working with young horses – trying to promote their interest and co-operation and love of the sport." She paused. "And with a horse like this, that's not very difficult at all."