After spending the last 11 years raising his family in Australia, the trainer is itching to condition top colts again.
by Dave Briggs
After an 11-year hiatus to his training career, Brett Pelling confirmed Friday night (Jan. 6) that he is back in the game.
Later this week, Pelling and his family will board a plane in Perth, Australia to begin the journey to New York City. Pelling, 58, who left the game and the United States at the top of the sport in January of 2006, said he plans to resume training horses as soon as possible, with the ultimate goal to condition top stakes colts again.
“I want to come back and train, do what I enjoyed, what I was good at, what I was known for… and that was training three-year-olds,” Pelling said in an hour-long phone interview with HRU. “If they come, they come. If they don’t, they don’t. I do feel that the business, over time, has become more specialized and I see an avenue there. If you are a go-to person for three-year-olds and you can manage, race, compete, I think that’s a good way to go. I don’t care if I have six, eight, 10, 12, 14… that’s what I’d like to do. If it doesn’t happen, that’s fine.”
Trainer records are not particularly accurate and weren’t kept before 1991, but when Pelling left at age 47 at the start of 2006, by some accounts he had earned more money as a trainer of standardbreds than anyone in history.
Why did he toss it all at the apex of his career to move some 11,500 miles away on the other side of the world? Well, for one, he didn’t need the money. Second, he and his wife, Joanne, are both New Zealand natives with strong ties to Australia. So, the decision was partly about moving home. But, mainly, Brett said then and reiterated Friday that they did it mostly for their kids — Grace, then 12, and Jack, then 10. Brett and Joanne, wanted to give them a better education, a slower pace of life and have them be near Joanne’s parents. Not long after settling in Australia, the couple welcomed a third child, Lilly, now 10.
Why come back to the game and the U.S. now?
“The family dynamic has changed,” Brett said. “Our two oldest children are both in America and we have a small family. Unfortunately, my wife’s parents both passed away last year, very close to each other, so they were a big part of our lives. With the oldest two children gone, we realized that it’s really just us. We have a little girl that is 10, who really needs to be with her older siblings. We are not getting any younger ourselves, so it was just time.
“They say life is in 10-year blocks. This is a 10-year block.”
Over the last 10 years, he has done some investing with his brother-in-law, imported school buses into Australia from China, got into property management and took up cycling to the point that he and a group rode the Tour de France route.
“But I was always following the horses. They were never far away,” Brett said, adding that he spoke regularly with his old boss, trainer Ross Croghan, and former top assistant Richard “Nifty” Norman.
“I was definitely checking on the computer and keeping tabs on everything. I kept in the swing of what was going on. I was also involved in the racing association (in Australia), to some extent,” Brett said, adding he bought two yearlings last year and two the year before at the Standardbred Horse Sales Company sale in Harrisburg, PA.
“This is a bit of a two-year plan. I wanted to make sure I had something to kick it off with. I didn’t stake them or make any of the continuation payment, but there will be a couple of non-winners I can kick off and fool with.”
His first U.S. visit
Brett first came to the U.S. in the early 1980s as a guide on a cargo plane full of horses. He worked for his father, trainer Brian Pelling, in California for a time, worked in Chicago for four years and then ended up in Florida working for Croghan.
In 1988, Brett went out on his own and marked his arrival on the scene by showing up at the Meadowlands with just two horses — Kiwi River N, an open-calibre pacing mare, and a $20,000 claimer. That year, he had 41 claimed from him, but he finished ’88 with 30 in his barn and was on his way.
Just one year after arriving in New Jersey, Brett finished fifth in the Meadowlands trainer standings. One year after that, in 1990, Brett won the trainer title with 117 victories at the Big M alone, 31 more than his next closest rival (he finished second in the money). It was the first of eight trainer tittles he’d win (four by wins and money; three by wins only and one by money alone).
“I love the Meadowlands,” Brett said. “I remember saying to my friends when I left, ‘Whatever happens at these other places, don’t forget to leave something on the side to race at the Meadowlands…’ That product we get in the winter now is probably not as recognized as it was 10 years ago on the world stage, but it’s still the Meadowlands. The Meadowlands is still the Holy Grail.”
In his first go-round, Brett trained 20 horses that each topped $1 million. The official USTA record shows that he racked up purse earnings well over $51 million, but he says his total is much more than that because trainer statistics have only been kept since 1991 and he kept a personal record that included earnings Down Under before he stepped away from the game in 2006.
Eleven years after he trained his last horse, Brett still ranks eighth on the official all-time list of trainer earnings, behind Ron Burke ($169,841,605), Jimmy Takter ($113,228,622), Bob McIntosh ($85,241,749), Erv Miller ($74,913,325), Mark Ford ($61,826,451), Noel Daley ($58,185,406) and Casie Coleman ($53,324,247).
Among his career highlights, Brett trained seven U.S. divisional champions, won four Little Brown Jugs (Armbro Operative, Shady Character, Astreos and Timesareachanging), four Meadowlands Pace titles (Davids Pass, Dream Away, The Panderosa and Rocknroll Hanover) and three North America Cups (Davids Pass, The Panderosa and Rocknroll Hanover).
Asked whether he should be in the Hall of Fame he said, “It should’ve happened 10 years ago, probably, given my list of accomplishments at the time.”
About the only major event that has eluded Brett is the Hambletonian, and he nearly won it in 2002 with Like A Prayer, who was second, just a neck behind Chip Chip Hooray.
Winning the Hambletonian would be nice, but he said there’s nothing, in particular, that he would like to win now.
“I’d like to say ‘drive 1,000 winners’, but I’m too old for that,” he said, laughing. “We accomplished a lot in the business and I’m not crying wolf or anything, but we probably were held to a greater standard than those that didn’t do a quarter of what we did. I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on all that and I don’t know where it came from.”
When Brett left 11 years ago, the industry’s take on him essentially fell into two schools of thought — fabulous trainer or cheat. The majority were in the former category, but it was tough to ignore that some were skeptical of his methods, particularly since colleagues have said Brett was an early adopter of using sodium bicarbonate prior to testing being implemented which established fines and suspensions for excessive TCO2 levels.
“As soon as they implemented the (TCO2) testing and everything… I just didn’t want anyone calling me up and telling me that I got a positive. No one wants that,” Brett said in a 2005 feature in The Canadian Sportsman in which colleagues were quoted as saying Brett stopped using sodium bicarbonate after TCO2 testing started.
In fairness, Brett’s record is relatively clean. His biggest infraction is a much-scrutinized morphine positive on The Panderosa in 1999 at The Meadows that cost him 20 days and $5,000.
In 2005, Brett told The Sportsman six other trainers received positives for morphine that week at The Meadows, all of them, except him, received 10-day suspensions. He also said The Panderosa tested positive for less than four nanograms (one-billionth of a gram) of morphine and that the acceptable limit in New Jersey at that time was 75 nanograms.
Brett did not have a positive test in five years of racing after that and said some of the negativity that hung over him had to do with professional jealousy and the fact he has never been shy about touting his accomplishments.
“We had a couple of controversial things, probably worked out to one-tenth of the things that other people have been involved in. Was it personality, because we were invasive and we won what we won? I don’t know,” Brett said Friday. “It really doesn’t matter to me at all because I can walk with my head held high.”
No shrinking violet
There’s no doubt Brett Pelling’s personality didn’t make him universally loved on his first go-round. He has a healthy ego and has never been shy about speaking up if he thinks he sees a wrong. It doesn’t appear he has mellowed much in that department in 11 years. Consider his take this week on catch drivers:
“I really thought drivers were the stars of the part, needed to be, but I’ve totally turned on that. I actually think drivers are an anchor to the sport,” Brett said. “They don’t give anything to the sport. Very few of them actually invest in the sport. If you had trainers routinely on TV or in the media, I think they would be far more insightful about what’s going on with their animals than the drivers are.”
Brett said the fee structure should be changed to give trainers seven per cent of the purse and drivers three per cent. He then went on to criticize modern driving techniques as being detrimental to the game.
“Another really massive peeve I have towards the U.S. and Canada is that I believe that they should bring in a rule that drivers must stay in the confines of the bike. These drivers laying out the back of the bike when you’ve got a 10-horse field, the horse behind him has to cover an extra yard. By the time you times that by 10, you wonder why horses don’t win from sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth or tenth anymore because the fields are so spread out that you can’t even get them all on the TV screen anymore.
“One of the big movements that’s happening is public perception and when you’ve got drivers lying back, for whatever reason, you’re basically impeding every single horse behind them.”
Brett said in Australia, drivers are set back for lying back in the bike and he hopes that rule gets adopted in North America.
“I think it’s a great rule, really, really well done. The bottom line is that if you win and you have a driver that’s lying back and he wins by a head or a neck, he’s taken down because that horse coming off his back would have beaten him. It’s a very easy rule to enforce. I think the public would be used to it immediately and it just makes racing so much fairer. These races now when it’s just a big drag race, with the guys laying flat back out, it doesn’t work.”
He said modern speed sulkies have also hurt the game.
“Someone asked me for one thing in the sport that I would roll back… I think every racetrack should have 10 Jerald (sulkies) in 10 different colors (that are coordinated with the post position color). Load them up and go. This whole thing with the bikes and the seats is just wrong and not good for horse racing.”
Brett said, ultimately, he’s just looking out for harness racing’s customers.
“This sport is all about gambling, it’s not about making sure the drivers are happy or the trainers are happy, it’s about gambling and knowing that these guys that bet their two bucks are getting a fair shake,” he said.
Clearly, the man is still passionate about the sort, but has the game passed him by while he was in Australia?
‘They’ve still got four legs and a tail and I’m still as anal as I ever was about everything,” Brett said, laughing. “So, I won’t be any different. I don’t see that. It’ll be fine.
“I started off with the three-year-olds as a bit of a fixer, like if something was wrong (people sent horses to me),” Brett said. “So, if I go back to being a bit of a fixer, when you’ve got a problem, that’s okay.”
He said he has missed the horses the most.
“I enjoy being around the horses. You get a lovely horse and when you’re together there’s no greater feeling. There is an accomplishment there, you are responsible for that animal,” Brett said. “I miss that and I will be very happy to be a part of it again.”
As for trading a quieter, more temperate life in Perth for the United States, he said he “definitely missed the action. In America, you can go and do anything whenever you want. Plus, I want to see this Trump thing go down, it’ll be interesting times,” Brett said, laughing. “I’m a real proponent for change and I hate the way it was done before. I’m quite fascinated on how this is all going to go down.
One thing is for sure: if Brett returns to operating a high-level stakes barn, it will inject some much-needed personality and variety into a game that has become too consolidated with a small number of top trainers.
If nothing else, like Trump, Brett Pelling should make things interesting.