Remembering Toby Sheets

Thursday, June 20th, 2024

Toby Sheets, former assistant to Steve Asmussen with NY-Bred Champion Haynesfield Photo Courtesy of Adam Coglianese/NYRA Photos

By Teresa Genaro

Maggie Wolfendale Morley and Toby Sheets’ friendship did not get off to an auspicious beginning. Morley (then Wolfendale) had recently begun working as the New York Racing Association’s paddock analyst, and Sheets was Steve Asmussen’s assistant. 

One night, she joined trainers Abigail Adsit and David Cannizzo for dinner. Sheets was seated across from her. 

“He ripped me a new one,” she said. “We didn’t really know each other, and he started talking about what I said about people’s horses on TV, and he was not happy. ‘You can’t say that!’”

Apparently the conversation escalated to the point that other diners in the restaurant noticed, leading to the waitress to come to the table as Morley tried to defend herself. 

“I started to lose it,” she said. “I went to the bathroom and Abby came with me, and she said to me, ‘Go to the bar, do a shot with him, and you’ll be good.’

“I took her advice, and by the end of the night, Toby and I were best friends.”

Fiercely protective of both his horses and his friends, Sheets was found dead in Greece on June 16. The cause of death was drowning. 

Winners circle photo following Haynesfield’s victory in the 2010 G1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. Photo Courtesy of Adam Coglianese/NYRA Photos

Toby Sheets with jockey Ramon Dominguez & Haynesfield Photo courtesy of Adam Coglianese/NYRA Photos

Sheets had worked for years as Steve Asmussen’s assistant at Belmont Park. When Asmussen closed his New York barn last year, Sheets worked for several other trainers at Belmont before recently traveling to Greece, with an eye on moving there and establishing a career in the restaurant industry.

“I feel completely empty,” said retired trainer Rick Schosberg, the president of New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association Take the Lead racehorse retirement program. “I had talked to him just a couple of days ago about Chestertown.”

Asmussen, and thus Sheets, had trained the New York-bred Chestertown, who sold for $2 million as a two-year-old in 2019 and who was retired last year. Chestertown was bred by Chester and Mary Broman and named for their upstate New York farm; Sheets had been training him to be a stable pony, and, ever vigilant, had made arrangements for the horse to be transferred to Miguel Gutierrez for a career as an outrider pony.


“I texted him while he was in Greece and he called me back a day later,” said Schosberg. “He seemed relieved to be in another place than the racetrack, at least for a little while.”

Known for his extraordinary kindness to other people, Sheets asked little of his friends, and even those closest to him often didn’t know much about his life before he got to Belmont.

Morley said that Sheets grew up in Arkansas and had been around horses since childhood; he left home while still young, working as a waiter and bartender in Colorado, then galloping horses on the West Coast and in New Orleans. He trained on his own for a decade before signing on as Asmussen’s assistant in 2004.  

He stayed in New York year-round, and while many images capture him at Aqueduct in the winter, it was in the summer during the Saratoga meet that he and others based at Belmont had time to relax.

“A lot of the assistants stayed at Belmont year-round,” said Cherie DeVaux, a trainer who formerly worked for Chad Brown. “It was quiet in the summer because the racing was upstate, so we got a chance to hang out. Toby was a big supporter when I went out on my own. He’d send a quick text to check in or to congratulate me, and he was always there to talk to, no matter what was going on.”

She remembered a particularly painful incident that was made slightly easier because of Sheets’ presence, when one of the horses that she worked with suffered an injury that required the horse to be euthanized.

“I was really struggling during the procedure, and he took over for me,” she said. “He told me to step away and he held the horse to make it easier on me. That’s the kind of person he was: he always put other people first.” 

Known as much for his horsemanship as for his kindness, Sheets reliably retired horses when they were ready, getting the retirement paperwork done early and thoroughly.

“He was by far one of the best all-around horsemen I’ve ever known in 40 years on the racetrack,” said Schosberg.

He recalled an incident when he was at the track during morning training; Sheets was on the pony, and an exercise rider was having trouble with one of Asmussen’s horses.

“He pulled the pony up, switched places with the exercise rider, and within an eighth of a mile, Toby had this horse that had been acting like an idiot galloping around with his head down.” 

Carol Seaver was the racing manager for Turtle Bird Stable, who owned Asmussen stable standouts Haynesfield and Cluster of Stars, both New York-breds, both graded stakes winners. 

“He knew what was going on with every horse in the barn, not just the accomplished ones like Haynesfield,” she said. “His being able to get on horses was such an asset, and he had such a good handle on Haynesfield. He understood the horse’s cruising speed and ability, and he plotted a very successful course for him, knowing where he’d shine the most.” 

Bred by Barry Weisbord and Margaret Santulli, Haynesfield retired with earnings of $1.3 million, a win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), and a head loss to Jersey Town in the Cigar Mile (G1).  When Dave Lyon bought a $250,000 Classic Empire colt in 2021, he asked David Ingordo, his bloodstock agent, for trainer recommendations.

“He told us to send him to Asmussen, essentially because of Toby,” said Lyon. “And he was right.” After Morello won the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, Lyon and his partners invited Sheets to have champagne with them.

“Nope,” said Lyon. “He wanted to go back to the barn. After we won the Gotham, he did the same thing. He always put the horse before everything. And he didn’t hesitate to tell us when a horse needed time or needed to be laid up for a little while.”

Sassy, sarcastic, and often spicy, Sheets might not be the first person you’d think of as a babysitter for humans. But his kindness and care extended beyond his friends and his horses to the children of his friends.

“My kids would spend holidays with him and his family, and we got to know his dad and his brothers,” said Seaver. When Maggie and Tom Morley had their first child in 2016, they asked Sheets to be Grace’s godfather. “He and Grace were really close,” said Morley. “He promised her that when she turned 18, they’d go to Paris together.”

She paused, choked up. “He was an amazing person to our girls. He and Leah Gyramati were the first people to hold Grace after Tom and me. He stood next to me at my wedding, and when he knew that Tom was away and I had the girls to myself, he’d come hang out and spend nights with us.”

When Asmussen shut down operations at Belmont, it “rocked Toby’s world a little bit,” said Wolfendale Morley. Another friend said that demons chased Sheets, and he chased them back. 

“I kind of thought that he’d made this far and he’d be around forever,” she said. “It hurts so much, especially because it was so sudden. The day before I heard the news, I’d been thinking about how I was going to find him to get to Greece to visit him.” 

“He was always there for us,” she went on, “and he never asked anything in return, just to be a friend and give love. As he always said to me, ‘Love is love.’” 

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