by Murray Brown
Delvin G Miller: I can’t remember a single year when Delvin didn’t show up at the Fairgrounds ostensibly to evaluate the yearlings. But I can’t remember even one time when he had a yearling out on the floor to look at it — not one single time! He’d roam the shedrows looking over the stall doors. Occasionally, a yearling might catch his eye and he might linger. We’d ask, ‘Can we get him out for you Delvin?’ His stock answer would be, ‘That’s okay, I’ve seen enough.’ I think his visits were mostly based on his long-time friendship with Johnny Simpson and Archie Mudge. He loved to keep them company and they him. I remember him visiting looking at yearlings accompanied with Arnold Palmer, Whitey Ford and Perry Como, all good friends of his.
Actually, there was one time when I saw him inspect a yearling in the traditional manner, but it was a set up.
Jim Leaming, a sportscaster from Philadelphia and an avid harness racing fan and owner, produced a half-hour show for Philly’s KYW called “Born To Pace”. It followed the progress of a mare foaling to the time that the foal sold as a yearling at Harrisburg.
As luck would have it, the mare was the great Romola Hanover and the foal that she had was the world champion Romalie Hanover who became the highest-priced pacing filly sold to that time at $101,000. I can still hear George Swinebroad saying to Joe O’Brien after he had bid $100,000 for her on behalf of Armstrong Bros., “Hell, a hundred thousand dollars ain’t nothin, I’ve got a hundred and one.”
In Born To Pace, Delvin was chosen to evaluate a yearling for the prospective buyer. The colt was a striking chestnut colt by the name of Bregman Hanover, who Delvin commenced to evaluate, something I’d never seen him do after seeing him both at the farms and at horse sales. The video might still be available through the USTA. I know that they used to have copies of it.
Bill Wellwood: When I think of “Woody,” I think of him as the Canadian version of Howard Beissinger. He was an incredible horseman with a strong work ethic who was focused and most definitely did not suffer fools gladly. I particularly remember one trip by Bill to the Fairgrounds.
We had flown a group of Canadian horsemen down from Ontario to look at the yearlings. I don’t remember the others, but I know Brad Maxwell was among them.
Woody had decided that he wasn’t interested in even looking at any pacers. He was solely focused on trotters. The others in the group only wanted pacers. They split up. “Let those others look at pacers. I’ll look at the trotters where the money is.”
Since we had far fewer trotters than we had pacers, Wellwood was finished well before the others. He was ready to go home.
“Where are those SOBs?” he muttered. “How long does it take them to look at a horse?”
Finally, he decided that he had waited long enough. He went to Barn 1, where most of the better pacing colts were stabled, to round up his crew.
When he got there, they had a dark, good looking colt on the floor. Bill looked at him and said, “Who’s that?” as he walked around him. Brad Maxwell, who had his heart set on buying the colt, later told me “my heart jumped, because I knew that Woody, the man, who wouldn’t even look at a pacing yearling that year was the likely buyer of the colt.”
He was right. Wellwood ended up buying the colt. The colt, who was from the first crop of Western Hanover and the first foal from the great Rich N Elegant was Rustler Hanover who won the Metro the next year and was an outstanding 2- and 3-year-old and was later syndicated for over a million dollars.
Tony Alagna: I used to refer to Tony as a “rising young star”. He is not rising anymore. He has achieved true stardom.
Maybe he isn’t quite as young anymore either. He almost always comes to the farms together with his sidekick AKA “Mr. Harness Racing,” Myron Bell.
Tony usually covers the entire waterfront. He looks at just about all the yearlings that might interest him, with, of course, a special interest in the ones by his baby boy, Captaintreacherous.
Myron on the other hand is a self-professed “pedigree snob”, who of course looks at all the CTs, but only has an interest in a few others that come from his pet families. I cannot argue with him on that. Actually, it’s very difficult to argue with Myron on anything. One cannot disagree with him in most cases, it’s a philosophy that has served him well.
The Burke Brigade: I could just say Ronnie Burke, but that doesn’t do his team justice. He always comes with his partners Larry Karr and Phil Collura. Last year, we were also privileged that they also had Mark Weaver and Mike Bruscemi of the Weaver/Bruscemi team with them.
The Burke Brigade, as I refer to them, always waits until after all the videos have been posted before visiting.
Larry evaluates the video of each and every yearling that they might be interested in that is selling at Harrisburg and Lexington.
He and Phil are a veritable fountain of information. When a mare has had previous foals, they know who purchased them, for how much, how they turned out, how their video was and what Ronnie thought of them. Then Ronnie does the ground work evaluating the yearlings he is most interested in.
Gene Riegle: Quite possibly the best yearling picker of them all. George Segal used to rely solely on Gene to evaluate all the yearlings he was interested in, even those of his own Brittany Farms. Now Segal has a whole group who provide him with information. I’m not sure that even combined they have as good an opinion as Gene did.
Gene would come to the Fairgrounds with George in tow, usually the day after the Little Brown Jug. George wanted to be sure that Gene saw them before Lexington so that he could save some money for Harrisburg if he needed to. The yearlings were barely broke at that time and certainly did not look as good as they would be by sale time. But Gene Riegle did not need to see too much. He’d watch them on the lead strip, pick out a few he wanted to look at, then look at them on the floor.
On the floor, Gene would walk around the yearling, give a coded number to George and then he was done. The whole process might have taken 30 seconds. Back then, George wouldn’t even let Gene have a catalog. He wanted him to assess the yearlings without him even knowing its pedigree.
That’s how George came to buy Western Hanover. Unbeknownst to us, he told George, “Whatever you spend at Lexington, you’d better save some money to buy that No Nukes colt at Hanover.”
George Sholty: When I think of George, I envision a proud banty rooster. We wasn’t very big, but there were times when I think he thought he was ten feet tall. George was a great horseman and an even greater driver. He could make speed as well as any person that ever lived. Looking at yearlings he was as thorough as anybody.
Here’s my favorite Sholty story: When the first Tar Heels came out, George was anything but enamored with them. He had a filly who would kick the stars out of heaven and a colt whose name was Gar Hanover, who was terribly gaited and fell down with George at least twice.
In those days, Hanover published its own private catalog with the pedigrees of the yearlings listed by their sire instead of in numerical order.
He arrived at the Fairgrounds. The first thing he did when handed the book was to go to the section where the pedigrees of the Tar Heel yearlings were and tore them out of the book and made a show about throwing them in the trash. As he did it he said, “Don’t show me any of them. I’ll never train another one of those SOBs as long as I live.”
Here’s the P.S. to that story. The very next year he drove the great Tarquinius and the outstanding 2-year-old Bengazi Hanover. Both were, you guessed, Tar Heels.
Perry Soderberg: Perhaps today’s most renowned yearling picker. I loved when Perry came to the farm. He is a true professional. He knows exactly what he is doing and makes everybody around him comfortable. He looks at a lot of yearlings. After looking, he asks to have the ones he wants to know more about turned out in the paddock. He is pretty tight lipped about his opinions and usually keeps his thoughts to himself.
What amazes me most about Perry is how he manages to have so many well-known clients and still keep them happy and satisfied. He is best known as the yearling picker for Jimmy Takter, but among his other clients are George Segal, the Libfeld-Katz partnership, Nancy Johansson, Bud Hatfield, himself and likely a few that I am unaware of.
Ronnie Waples: Before his retirement, we used to have Ronnie visit us every year. In recent years, hardly at all. I loved to have him visit. He was always pleasant with a smile and a good word for everybody and most of the horses.
He’d never have a problem getting to Hanover, but never could seem to find the entrance to the Fairgrounds. Each year we’d get a call from him, “I’m here, but I can’t find the gate to the f*&$k*@g Fairgrounds.” Each year, we’d have to guide him in, only to have it repeated the following year.
Soren Nordin: The first visit by the great Swedish trainer was, to say the least, illuminating. He was the first trainer to visit with a measuring cane. The first time I saw him with it I thought that he might be lame and was using the cane for support.
However, he walked perfectly sound. Then he opened the measuring apparatus and began measuring all the yearlings that he looked at. My first question was: to what purpose? I quickly found that he much preferred a yearling that was longer than it was tall to lessen the likelihood of it hitting its shins.
Then he would sometimes do something that I’ve never seen any trainer do, before or since. He would stand behind a yearling and drape his large frame over the yearling’s rear end. To this day I have no idea of his purpose in doing so.
I recall we had one particularly tough Florida Pro filly, that I was certain would not take kindly to the practice. We tried to warn Mr. Nordin about the filly’s proclivity to kick, but he wouldn’t hear anything of it. BOOM! She let both hind legs fly and knocked him clear on his ass. He was momentarily stunned. But he got up, dusted himself off and was off to the next filly to which he did the same thing.
Jim Campbell: A true gentleman in every sense of the word. He always calls before coming, always provides a list, always conducts himself as well as a person possibly could. It’s no wonder that he and his equally gentlemanly owner, Jules Siegel, have maintained as close a relationship as they have for as long as they have.
Linda Toscano: Linda and Brad invariably show up during the last week prior to the sale. Even though I loved having Linda and Brad there, I think that I looked forward more to the appearance of my dear friend Clarence.
Clarence was Linda’s beloved Golden Retriever who she first brought to the Fairgrounds when he was a newly purchased puppy and continued doing so until his sad demise last year. They have a new golden, but there will never be another Clarence. Linda and Brad would come each year with a list. They would also tell Dr J. “You know what I like. Add anything to it.”
Dr Peter Boyce and Dr Bridgette Jablonsky: Peter had and Bridgette of course still does have, the greatest eye for a yearling of any two people I’ve ever known. That doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to pick champions, but it certainly helps a great deal. I consider them to have been the greatest farm managers it has been my pleasure to have known. Of the two, I think I would rate Dr. J slightly ahead, mostly because she is an absolute perfectionist and totally detail oriented. Nothing escapes her. She is also much more involved in the actual raising of the yearlings than Peter was.
She personally inspects each and every one of them on a very regular basis. If she spots a problem, no matter how minor, she immediately addresses it. One thing that Dr. Boyce was expert at was spotting the occasional diamond in the rough. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to spot as beautiful a yearling as The Panderosa (AKA Deadeye Hanover) was. Even Stevie Wonder would have spotted him. One year, John Simpson, Sr., then totally blind, asked Peter who was his favorite trotting colt in the entire consignment. We had a few obvious standouts, but Dr. Boyce said, ‘We’ve got a Florida Pro colt that toes out a little more than I’d like one to, but for free, I’d take him over every trotter in the entire consignment.’
The colt brought only $17,000 and he was purchased for Mr. Simpson’s personal account. His name was Sugarcane Hanover.
Another thing I remember about Peter was his belief about veterinarians, of which of course he was one. “If I were buying yearlings, the last person I’d have looking for me would be a vet. Throughout their learning careers they are taught to look at all the faults when looking at a horse with very little emphasis placed on the good. I prefer to look at the good points.”
The Bad Guys: Actually they are not bad people per se. But many of them they lack certain basic manners when entering into a person’s place of work. I was tempted to name names but didn’t because:
1. My wife, Sweet Carol Stein, who likes to read my columns before I submit them, would not have allowed me to do so. She tells me “you get yourself into enough trouble without going out of your way to do so. Keep the names out.”
2. If by some chance would have passed through Carol they likely would have been axed by my editor.
Instead, I’ll mention them by their deeds — or perhaps, their misdeeds.
It was fairly rare that we got people to come to the farms to look at the yearlings out in the fields before they were brought in to be prepped for the sale. Nevertheless, whenever she got such a request, Dr. J would do everything in her power to accommodate that person.
There was this person, who I would describe as a mid-level and occasional yearling buyer. He said that he and his trainer could come only on a Sunday when most of the people including Dr. J (rarely) had a day off.
Nevertheless, Dr. J being Dr. J, arranged to have a crew of people sacrifice their one day of rest to show the yearlings to these folks.
Not only that, but she also had the individual yearlings put into catch pens so that it would be much more convenient to view them close up. Would you believe that on the Sunday morning, the person called to say that he had to cancel the visit?
Here’s the kicker, two years later, same person, same scenario, he can only come on Sunday. Dr. J once again acquiesced. Same result. In future, especially for this one person, we are closed for business on Sunday, which is the farm’s actual policy. No exceptions.
There was one particularly annoying person who thankfully hasn’t been around in years. He’d show up with a long list of yearlings to look at. That in itself is great. The farms encouraged people to look at as many yearling as they wanted to. Exposure is the name of the game. However, this particular person would take as long as a half hour to inspect each colt or filly. There were times when he was there until dark. His favorite expression was “walk him just one more time. “ This after the horse had been walked a dozen or more times previous.
There is one truly great horseman and person who would show up with his list. He was a fairly prominent buyer. Most grooms are proud of their horses and the work they do on them.
They’d set to work rubbing and preparing the horses that this gentleman want to see. With a good many of them, before the horse was even literally out of its stall, he would say in a cursory manner, “Put it back. I’ve seen all I need to.”
Guys, these people have feelings. They take pride in their work and their horses. The least you can do after they’ve worked to get one ready for you is to spend at least a few seconds looking at their horse.
There are those who show up without notice with a long list, or even worse, no list.
People, it’s to your benefit to let someone know that you are coming and to provide a list of those yearlings you’d like to see. You save yourself a lot of time and effort by being prepared. That way the farms will have the yearlings that you want to see ready when you get there and have someone readily available to show them to you.
There was one person who invariably would just be there. No phone call. No notice that he was coming. When asked for a list his response was “I want to see them all.”
That was fine. But if we knew you were coming we would have them ready for you. He would invariably respond, “You don’t need to have them shined up for me. I know what a horse should look like.”
Our response would be, “Yes we do.” We have standards and our people are expected to live up to these standards. This same person would invariably bitch because he was kept waiting because his yearlings were not yet quite ready to be shown.
I’ve saved the worst one for last. This is a person who showed up one day with Bill Perretti. You can say whatever you want about Bill Perretti, but one thing I’ve never seen him do was be abusive towards any other farm’s help. To the contrary, I’ve never seen him be anything but act gentlemanly and kind to them. Now if you are talking about the place’s owners and principals, that could be another story.
But they were in a position to yell and curse back at him and often did. The grooms just had to take the abuse. One thing about Bill, he was a helluva pitcher, but he could catch as well. Actually I found that if you stood up to him, he was more likely to show you respect than if you didn’t. But I digress.
On this particular day, the guy accompanying Bill, apparently thought that he could get away with anything, because he was with Bill. He abused groom after groom — “Hurry up. Can’t you move faster? We haven’t got all day. This yearling looks like s – – -” were among the insults he hurled at them. He brought a man with over 30 years of dedicated service to the farms literally to tears.
I wasn’t in the immediate vicinity of what was going on. When I heard of it I went immediately to Bill and told him, “Bill, you better shut this crazy sonuvabitch up or we’ll throw you all out.” Bill, in his inimitable manner, told the guy to shut his mouth and not open it again. I’m sure the guy hasn’t been back. I’m guessing that he’s probably only one of very few who would not be welcomed.
QUESTION OF THE WEEK
Derek Delaney asks: “Of all the racing festivals that you’ve attended, what are the five best?”
This comes with a disclaimer because I’ve never been to the Gold Cup & Saucer in PEI, which many folks tell me is the best of them all. Hopefully, this will be taken care of by this time next year.
1. The Elitloppet at Solvalla in Sweden. This has it all. It is a true national event. It’s a horse lover’s dream. It gets a great crowd — everybody is there because they love horse, horse racing and having fun.
The only negative to me is that the horses race heats. I used to love heat racing. But in recent years, I’ve come to consider it detrimental to the well-being of our equine athletes. That doesn’t mean that I am correct, but rather that I don’t like seeing our horses subjected to it.
2. The Little Brown Jug. A true American event and Americana at its very best. It’s not quite what it used to be — to me anyway. The supporting card just isn’t quite as strong and the two heats bugaboo has gotten to the point where it really bothers me.
3. The Prix d’Amérique. Nobody does pageantry better than the French and this event showcases it. It also often represents the greatest trotters in the world racing in what many consider to be France’s greatest equine event. It is also a test of endurance without subjecting the horses to having to go heats.
4. The Hambletonian. The greatest American trotting race and a true Classics event. Thank goodness the heats format will be replaced beginning next year. If you asked me which one of these events I would most like to see in person, I guess it still would be the Hambletonian.
5. The Vincent Delaney Memorial near Dublin Ireland. This is the youngest of these events, but one of the most pleasurable to be part of. Do they have the best horses racing? Far from it. But they do more with less than any great event I’ve ever been part of. The Delaney family work their collective butts off to make this as pleasurable for all attending. More than everything, to me it best represents a joyful and horse-loving populace who just love what these great creatures can do for us lowly humans.
PET PEEVE OF THE WEEK
Yonkers Raceway distributes the most purse money of any harness track in North America, maybe even the world. Yet, its paddock is horrible — dirty, with holes in the roof and a stench that pervades it.
Why don’t the powers that be get something done to make it at the least presentable?
On the same subject, with a cheer, instead of a boo, those that have seen the new paddock at Woodbine Mohawk Park tell me that it’s a state-of-the-art facility, designed to make things workable and comfortable for both its equine and human occupants.
Have a question for The Curmudgeon?
Reach him by email at: email@example.com