More than 20 years ago, trainer Matt Shirer was hard at work on the court playing high school and AAU basketball in northern Ohio. Shirer moved on from his basketball career in the early 2000s and officially began his training career in 2015.
Churchill Downs’ Median Office sat down with Shirer to get to know more about him–from playing in games against one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, LeBron James, to his start as a trainer
Q: How did you get started training horses?
A: I grew up around Cleveland and began going to Thistledown. I started walking hots while in college at Ohio Wesleyan and eventually took a job as a foreman to Kenny McPeek.
Q: What is one thing people at the racetrack don’t know about you?
A: I grew up playing basketball in Ohio. I went to Medina High School, which is a bigger public high school. I played for my school but in the summers I would play in summer leagues and travel to different tournaments. I played quite a few times with LeBron James in games or at open gyms. My friend Tony Stockman, who was the 2000 Mr. Basketball, would invite me to play in open gyms with LeBron. I also played against Mike Gansey in high school. He was by far one of the best players I saw until LeBron. He’s now the general manager for the Cavaliers. After high school I played college basketball for Ohio Wesleyan, which is a Division III school.
Q: What’s your favorite part about training horses?
A: I love to watch a horse develop and be able to show their full potential. I don’t have a lot of young horses in my barn but for the ones I have, I like seeing them at the beginning of their career and be able to work with them so they can show their best. Even the horses that we claim, a lot of them have already proven themselves on the racetrack but I like to see them be the best they can be under our care.
Q: Who’s your favorite horse that you trained?
A: Strut the Ring. This was one of the horses I claimed when I began my career. He always showed up on race day. He’d lay it down every time. We only claimed him for $5,000, but he proved that horses can have heart at all levels. His name was fitting because when we’d lead him over to the paddock he would strut around the ring. Now he’s retired and is a trail horse.
Q: Who was your mentor for training horses?
A: Kenny (McPeek) is someone I always strived to be like. His program is so successful and I learned a lot when I worked for him.
Q: It seems like one of the stars in your barn is your goat Tucker. When did Tucker join the Shirer team?
A: It’s a pretty funny story how we got Tucker. About three years ago my assistant, Rene Cano, wanted to get a goat. We were at Fair Grounds and goats always get along well with horses. One day, trainer Kevin Williams came over to our barn with this baby white goat. He was never around people and told Rene his name was Tucker. I think he may have been joking because “Tucker” Alonzo was standing there. But, his name stuck and he’s been with us ever since. He’s pretty much a dog. He sits in my office like a dog and is very friendly.
Q: Who is one horse you wish you could’ve trained?
A: Zenyatta was such a cool horse. I feel like most of the horses in my care are speed horses but she would always come with such a huge run from dead last, even if the pace wasn’t very fast.”
Q: When’s the last time you took a vacation?
A: A long, long time ago. I took out my trainer’s license in 2015 and I worked several years before that for Kenny. The last time I took some time off was before I worked for Kenny.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
A: I like to be outdoors. I enjoy running and getting outside as much as possible. I’m also a big fantasy football guy during NFL season. I’m in a league with several guys around the racetrack.
Q: What’s on the playlist in your truck?
A: I like to listen to the music I grew up with. Old school rap and songs from the early 2000s are normally what I listen to. If there’s anything new on my playlist it’s Post Malone.
To learn more about Shirer, visit his website at www.mattshirerracing.com or follow him on X (@ShirerRacing).