Jimmy Takter, one of the most successful trainers or all time, said he plans to walk away from harness racing at the top of the game at the end of the 2018 season.
by Dave Briggs
Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Takter joked Wednesday at his barn in the Red Mile backstretch that he shares a kindred spirit with Cookie Monster. He wants all the harness racing cookies for himself. It makes it all the more surprising that he plans to cut back significantly in 2018 and take 2019 — and perhaps beyond — off from the game.
“I’m going to take 2019 totally off. I’m not going to do anything and then I’ll see where it goes and what I’m going to do,” Takter said. “I haven’t made any decision (what I am going to do), but I need the time off to come back myself. Whatever that means, I don’t know.”
Takter is a six-time Trainer of the Year who has won the award the last three straight years.
Frank M. Antonacci of Lindy Farms said Takter is, “the best horse trainer of all time.”
Why would one of the most prolific and successful trainers in modern history — perhaps ever — walk away from the game at the height of his fame when the competitive fire is still stoked?
The last part is the issue. Takter, 57, said that fire doesn’t burn as hot as it once did.
“I don’t feel the motivation the same. I think to be really on top and successful you have to be very, very motivated. When you start losing that hunger, then it’s time to (leave),” Takter said. “That’s how I am. If I’m going to do this then I have to be 100 per cent into it otherwise it doesn’t work.”
He said he isn’t having as much fun anymore and he doesn’t want it to impact his owners.
“Believe me, nobody has better owners than me. My owners were hand-picked in the industry, every single one,” Takter said. “Most of my owners, they are wealthy people, but they want to have fun, including me.”
Takter said pressure is a factor in his decision.
“Part of it is there is extreme pressure on you to be top. I have been living under this pressure, and I’m not really a strong person in a lot of ways. I get depression very easily and I get down on myself. It’s hard… when I go down,” Takter said. “I want to be on the top, but I can’t all the time. It’s been 35 years doing this and it’s hard.
“I want to get the stress out of myself and get myself, both mentally and physically, in better shape.”
Antonacci said he understands why Takter might not have the same level of passion.
“The way he does things is so hands-on and so labor-intensive and emotionally-intensive, I can understand how he can get to the point where he says, ‘This is my life’s work and my passion and if I’m not having fun every day then I need to back off a little on it,’” Antonacci said, adding he can’t, yet, truly handicap if Takter will be able to walk away.
“In my experience with Jimmy Takter, I don’t think he’s halfway about anything. That’s what I would say. I don’t know which way it’s going to be, but it’s not going to be halfway,” Antonacci said, laughing.
But if Takter does exit the game, Antonacci said Takter’s departure will, “leave a void in the business. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of other trainers quite happy. There might be some room to win some races now, but the guy’s a legend. He’s a living legend and I can understand it. What else does he have to win? What else does he have to prove?”
Takter admitted it will be hard to cut back. It’s partly why he is giving more than a year’s notice. He also wants to see the yearlings he bought in 2016 through their three-year-old seasons.
“We’re going to buy a lot less. Instead of having 40 babies, I said we’ll have 10, but that didn’t work. We’ll probably end up with 20-something; a little less.”
After that, his plan is to send the majority of his horses to his daughter, Nancy Johansson and his top trainer, 37-year-old Per Engblom.
“I want to promote those two people. I live on my farm. They are going to be on my farm and if I hang around and I feel like coming down with Per and Nancy I can do that. Maybe they’ll call me up about something, but I don’t want to have to worry about it,” Takter said. “They’ve been groomed to be independent and make their own decisions. I think they are very, very qualified to do this.”
Takter said the hardest time will be in June when it’s time for the babies to start hitting the track.
“That’s going to be the time that I think, ‘this is exciting’. You’re going to miss things, but I spoke to Mike Lachance… he retired basically five or six years ago. He’s helping Patrick a little bit and doing that when he feels like it. He said, ‘I’m so happy with it, I feel really good about it.’”
Takter said he likely won’t be training in 2019, but he will still be involved because he owns some horses and has even acquired a few new ones. At the opening session of the Lexington Selected Yearling Sale on Tuesday, Takter bought two yearlings and spent $450,000, the second most of anyone. On Wednesday night, Takter bought six more yearlings and has already spent over $1 million through two days, making him the sale’s leading buyer.
“I’m an idiot, believe me. When I go to a sale, especially when I drink a little bit,” Takter said, laughing, “then I forget about retirement.”
But what happens when Jimmy Takter is no longer in the industry? For sure, it’s a game-changer, but Takter insists he is replaceable.
“I guarantee the show will go on, the races will go off. It’s like if I die here tomorrow, the show will go on. It does,” Takter said. “Of course, it will have an impact. We win a lot of big races and someone else is going to win those races, different horses… It’s time to make room for new people.
Whether he stays or goes, Takter said he has many frustrations about the state of the game that haven’t helped him want to stick around.
“I’ve been one of the highest buyers for the last 10 or 15 years, I haven’t even got a Christmas card from one of the breeders. You’re buying a freaking horse and nothing… Alan Leavitt was the only one that used to send something at Christmas, some steak knives or something,” Takter said.
“They take people for granted a little too much, take the customers for granted.”
Poor marketing and promotion of the sport is also something that bothers Takter.
“The industry has changed so much. I think this business needs to really wake up with how they run the show,” Takter said. “I was here for a (Kentucky) Sires Stakes finals giving $1,750,000 out in purses. That’s a lot of money. That’s double what we give out all weekend in the Elitlopp. That evening, lights didn’t work, there’s maybe 200 people in the grandstand. It’s like you’re winning a $250,000 race and there’s no excitement around it. It’s just the money.”
Takter said the purses could be lower to do some promotion to get people to the track.
“You’ve got $1,750,000 to give out here in the Kentucky Sires Stakes, take $250,000 out of that because the government will do it eventually anyway. They’ve done it in every other state. Take it out and invest it and make an event of it. Maybe they won’t bet that much more, but we’re going to get the crowd to come here, bring people in here,” Takter said.
“So if you have $250,000 and maybe you get 10,000 people out here with giveaways and new excitement… maybe there’s 40,000 here in five or 10 years. But I guarantee when you have a Senator inviting his people here and you have $1,750,000 to give out in purses and there’s 200 people in the grandstand… how the hell is that Senator going to vote for harness racing? But if you have 10,000 or 15,000 people coming here, you know, it would be an event and we have to start to do it.”
Takter said the industry needs people who are experts in the entertainment business to book big acts.
“I would get Willie Nelson to come in here. They like country here. Then you have 20,000 people… Maybe only 5 per cent of people there think it’s fun, but they are coming back.”
He said the entire industry needs to take a percentage out of purses for professional marketing.
“Take Ontario, living on casino money. Pennsylvania, totally living on it. You’ve got to take a portion to do some kind of marketing, you’ve got to hire qualified people,” Takter said. “One day in Pennsylvania they are going to take everything away. Every year, less, less, less money. It’s so stupid.”
He said the industry should institute a multi-country lottery-style bet similar to Sweden’s V75.
“Just try it – Mohawk, Meadowlands, Vincennes, Solvalla. Take seven countries. When we get the pool to $200 or $300 million, now we can attract people,” Takter said. “You have to start somewhere. The Kentucky Derby didn’t start with 200,000 people. First day, how many people were there?”
Takter also feels strongly the sport needs a commissioner to oversee the entire industry in North America.
“Harness racing is an absolutely wonderful game, but it has to have one leader,” Takter said. “One set of rules for all over, include Canada, too.
“If we don’t start doing something, there’s not going to be any harness racing 10 years from now because this government is going to take the money away. The Meadowlands tried to do something, because they have no casino money. They had to do something, but look at these other tracks. They’d be dead, back to $2,000 purses again,” Takter said.
Is the state of the game a main reason for Takter’s impending departure? Will it cause other talented people to call it quits?
“I think you have to be concerned about that,” Antonacci said. “Is it a symptom of the industry or the symptom of the individual? Jimmy can answer that.”
For now, Takter plans to try something different in 2019, hoping out loud several times that he hopes whatever he does next won’t be boring.
He doesn’t think downsizing to a smaller stable would work well in his case.
“This is the problem with me. If I can be one of the best on top, I don’t know if I’m going to be satisfied (not being on top),” Takter said. “That could be an issue.”
No matter what, Takter is adamant you won’t find him hanging around the backstretch at Red Mile training a stable into his elderly years.
“It’s nice to stop when you’re on top,” he said. “I don’t want to be sitting around here with people saying, ‘Oh, Takter, that guy used to be good.’”