In the stretch run leading to his son Noah’s birth in November of 2016, trainer Cody Axmaker would playfully pat Danielle Larabell’s belly and ask their boy if he could enter the world on a day when his dad didn’t have a horse running.
“Cody is very intense about his work,” said Larabell. “Before Noah came, he couldn’t walk past a horse’s stall if he noticed anything out of place.”
Five weeks after Noah’s arrival (which came on a day with no horses in), Larabell rejoined her life partner’s barn at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Ariz., setting up a nursery in one of the tack rooms. Although Axmaker remained laser-focused on running his stable, a gradual shift in perspective occurred each time he stopped in to check on Noah.
“You’ve never felt anything as strong as the love you have for your kids,” said Axmaker, a 32-year-old Granger, Wash., product in his first season at Tampa Bay Downs. “It’s a feeling you wouldn’t trade for the world. It makes you step back and look at the future.”
A self-professed perfectionist, Axmaker tends to analyze every detail, no matter how small, in evaluating his horses and their performances. Five or six years ago, he might have obsessed about what to do differently to win more races (he has four winners from 51 starters here, with 12 seconds).
Although he still returns to the drawing board after a disappointing outcome, having Noah, 4, and daughter Delilah, who was born July 4, 2019, helps Axmaker maintain a strong grasp on what he can and cannot control.
“It (parenthood) has leveled him out. It’s taken him down a notch,” Larabell said. “It helps take his mind off things at the track when he comes home and has the kids to focus on. As much as we love the horses – they were our kids before the kids – there is more to life than racing.”
Axmaker has hired additional help so that he can get home a little earlier to be with the family (due to COVID-19 restrictions, Larabell and the children are not allowed on the backside). For the past several years, their home has been a 40-foot Presidential Holiday Rambler RV, which they keep at a bucolic, shady private residence nearby.
Noah has as much energy as a 2-year-old colt in training, and Axmaker enjoys teaching him to play catch, hit a golf ball and shoot baskets and then watching him play on his mini-trampoline when Dad gets worn out. Axmaker reads both kids bedtime stories before turning in.
“Danielle is a great mom,” Axmaker said. “I just kind of help guide them, be a disciplinarian when it’s needed and give them chores and keep them busy.”
The couple senses a day coming when the RV won’t be sufficient for four people, along with a cat, a red heeler cow dog and a bird. They also own a 9-year-old Icelandic pony they adopted on the off chance Noah and Delilah grow up liking horses.
They are looking to find a house in the surrounding area, with a goal of making Tampa Bay Downs their annual winter racing locale. Axmaker is submitting stall applications for the rest of 2021 to Monmouth Park in New Jersey, Canterbury in Minnesota and Gulfstream Park in south Florida, after primarily racing last summer and fall at Arapahoe Park in Colorado and Belterra Park in Ohio.
“The RV is a little crowded sometimes, and Noah is ready for his own space,” Larabell said. “But it’s fun. It’s nice to be able to put everything in there and go to the next place when we need to.”
Axmaker’s mother Suzy, who works on the Oldsmar backside for trainer Michael Campbell, helps pick up the slack, both at the barn and with the children. She handles laundry duties for her son’s stable and is adept at using an equine massager to soothe sore equine muscles. She’ll also watch the children when Cody and Danielle need a night out.
For Axmaker, being the breadwinner for four after mostly answering only to himself and owners is a validation of a lifestyle he was born to. His father Peter Axmaker is a trainer, and Cody grew up in Granger wanting to spend his free time helping around the barn and learning what makes Thoroughbreds tick.
“I grew up on a 70-acre farm where my dad bred horses, broke babies and trained them for the racetrack, and I was always watching and learning,” Cody said. “I remember reading the condition book on the drive home from Emerald Downs when I was 7 and figuring out which races were good spots for his horses, and discussing it with him.”
The young boy enjoyed getting into the stalls, feeling a horse’s legs and trying to get in tune with their bodies, the way his father did. Most of Peter Axmaker’s horses were Washington homebreds, some with nagging issues that kept them from running to their full potential. Cody came to believe the No. 1 thing a trainer could do to improve their performance was treating them as he would want to be treated – giving them sufficient time to recuperate after a race and letting them out of their stalls whenever possible.
In 2008, Peter Axmaker decided he wanted to spend the majority of his time breeding and raising horses in Kentucky, so Cody took over the racing end of the business. He proved himself by sending out a steady stream of winners at Turf Paradise under his father’s name and leading the stable to a second-place finish in 2010 at Yavapai Downs (now Arizona Downs).
He quickly discovered that the most challenging aspect of the business was trying to get faster horses.
“I had a lot of cheap horses starting out. They didn’t have much blood (pedigree) compared to what I have now,” he said. “The cheaper horses are harder to train than those with better bloodlines. They are like a puzzle, and if you want to win races you have to figure them out and make the right moves.
“You have to have a lot of patience, and you have to convince your owners to be patient and wait for the horse to bloom into itself.”
Being around his father’s stable taught Axmaker there are no shortcuts to success and that he had to be self-reliant to survive. Before his big meet at Yavapai Downs 11 years ago, he was scuffling along at Turf Paradise, training horses running in his father’s name while the elder Axmaker raced at Los Alamitos in southern California.
In his last race that season at Turf Paradise, Cody saddled a 12-1 shot, Stormy Seattle, for an upset victory that turned things around.
“That got me ten grand in my pocket, and that was good to get us to Yavapai Downs, where my dad’s stable won 20 races and was second-leading trainer,” he recalled.
It also allowed the ongoing education of Cody Axmaker to continue without interruption, and he was determined to grasp the opportunity.
“You can never stop learning in this industry,” he said.
“I think that is where he has an advantage, because he is very hands-on and rides all his horses,” Larabell said. “He loves working with them to find out what makes them feel good. Shoeing, chiropractic work, whatever it takes, he’s done all of it.”
Axmaker has found Tampa Bay Downs to be an ideal location for his 20-horse stable. He’ll hook his horses up to a walking machine in the afternoons and give them free rein to soak up sunshine and their surroundings, and he’ll let them roll in the sand pens. He says that has been a successful formula for his 8-year-old gelding William Crotty, who became Axmaker’s first 10-race winner with a victory here on March 12 in a mile-and-40-yard waiver claiming race.
William Crotty, who races for one of Axmaker’s major clients, Carrol Stubbs, has thrived under the conditioner’s care, winning 10 of 29 starts. The trainer also worked to alleviate some chiropractic issues he thought were preventing the horse from fully extending himself.
“It sounds simple, but he’s just a horse that you have to keep happy and feeling good. I’ve got a sand-pile outside the barn I let the horses roll in, and he never misses a day,” Axmaker said. “He’ll roll on one side, get up and roll on the other. There’s a lot of green grass, too, and we’ll let him graze and enjoy the sunshine every day after training.”
In addition to Stubbs, Axmaker has forged solid relationships with owners Roger Shiflett and Snowbird Thoroughbreds, owned by the husband-wife team of Tom and Pam Thieding. Both Shiflett and Snowbird Thoroughbreds have claimed horses for Axmaker at the current meeting, with Shiflett paying $32,000 for the maiden 3-year-old filly Sweet Mary Lou after her runner-up finish in a mile turf race on March 12, and the Thiedings claiming 3-year-old colt Kayaker for $32,000 after a maiden victory on Feb. 26.
Another solid owner is Michael Feigenbaum, whose 6-year-old mare Bonita Annie – a second and two thirds locally, from four starts – is Axmaker’s top money-earner.
“Now that I’m getting some better quality horses from owners who are willing to put up the money to buy better-bred, younger horses, I think I can compete with the best of them,” Axmaker said. “We’re excited to see where they lead us.
“My philosophy is that you always want to have a string freshening up, a string getting ready to run and a string racing, because they can’t run all year long. I feel like I can get 10 good races a year out of most of them if they remain sound and competitive.
“I think I’m pretty good at diagnosing problems. I’ve worked with a lot of good vets over the years, and I’m big on being able to pinpoint an issue and working on it and just staying patient, giving the best care we can give.”
Although she has her hands full with Noah and Delilah, Larabell misses being able to help out at the barn. Besides working as a groom, she has also galloped horses, getting a quick education one day when Axmaker put her on a horse so independent-minded that she decided to bail out when he took off in the wrong direction.
That experience is something she can laugh about because of her respect for each horse’s strength and spirit.
“They have so much heart,” she said. “If a horse is losing all the time, they feel that. You can tell they’re mad when they get back to the barn. When they win, they come back walking like ‘Yeah, I just won.’
“They know how you’re feeling, too,” she said. “They peer into your soul. They’ve helped me get through a lot of things when I was having a hard time.”
Winston Churchill is credited with saying “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
And, yet. … Axmaker was in search of something else eight years ago when he went to the Whiskey River Saloon in Phoenix (long since shuttered) after a day of hard work at Turf Paradise.
“We met two-steppin’,” recalled Larabell, who was there with friends. “He tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to dance, and that was it.”
“Her big blue eyes drew me in,” said Axmaker.
Axmaker was getting ready to head back to Granger for the summer. After spending most of their free time together the next few weeks, he asked Larabell to come with him (“I can’t do long-distance, so you’re going to have to come with me if we want to try to make this work,” in horse-trainer speak).
“That was pretty wild for me, seeing that I’d never been away from family,” said Larabell, who has a cosmetology degree and had considered becoming a sign-language interpreter. “I told him, ‘Well, you have to come meet my family first if I’m going to leave the state with you.’ It was kind of a weird feeling, but it felt right. And I liked the idea of being involved with horses. We went out to lunch with my best friend and she grilled him, but when you know, you know.”
As they continue to progress in the sport, Axmaker and Larabell hope to make a difference in how racing is perceived by the public. They are committed to finding new homes for their horses when their racing days are ended, scouring the Internet for potential new owners interested in a show horse or one to trail ride or simply turn out in a pasture.
“It is the trainer’s responsibility to do something for the horses that don’t want to compete anymore,” said Axmaker, who estimates he has found new homes for about 100 retired racehorses.
Larabell would like to see more tracks establish child-care facilities to assist young parents struggling to balance the demands of raising a family and caring for valuable racehorses.
No matter where the road takes them, they are firm in their belief that they can accomplish their goals together. Call it faith.
“We definitely involve God in our success,” Axmaker said. “There have been a lot of times when I’ve thought, how am I going to get out of this one? And He pulled me out somehow. That is something we try to pass down to our kids.”
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2021 Paulick Report.