A candid conversation with trainer Brett Pelling

by Murray Brown

Brett Pelling came from the small town of Mataura with a population of 2,000 on the South Eastern portion of the South Island of New Zealand.

Mataura is perhaps best known as the birthplace of harness racing’s first millionaire Cardigan Bay.

Pelling was a neighbor of Davey Todd who trained “Cardy” as Stanley Dancer referred to the pacer.

Brett was raised by his grandparents.

His grandad loved horse racing and followed it with a passion.

He remembers the day when Cardigan Bay returned to his native town and all 2,000 residents turned out to see him perform an exhibition on the town’s 3/8ths of a mile track.

At the age of 16, Pelling left New Zealand for Australia where he moved in with his mother and his step father Brian.

Brett credits Brian with most of his early lessons in horsemanship. Soon after, Brian left for America to pursue his trade in harness racing.

Young Brett was left behind to take care of the property and to work in the stable.

He also secured a job with Parramatta Livestock, who flew horses to and from Down Under to America. After several such journeys, Brett decided that he liked what little he had seen of America and decided to stay.

He reminisces about a journey he took with a nine-horse rig destined for the Cow Palace in San Francisco.The driver, the stereotype of the U.S. cowboy, has remained embedded in Brett’s mind ever since. He looked and acted tough. All of a sudden, the cowboy spat out a black viscous fluid into a cup at his side. “Holy s – – – ,” Brett thought to himself. “This bloke drinks oil.”

Brett started working for Brian in 1977. He lived in a tack room at Bay Meadows racetrack, where he met and befriended Ross Croghan and Paul Jessop.

Then Brian moved to Chicago, but he sent horses back to California and Brett ran that stable.

Brett was with Brian for eight years before going to work for Ross Croghan.

Croghan was in California, but wanted to move his stable to Florida because of the lack of racing dates out west.

They left with 26 head and landed at Pompano Park where they ended up selling all of them — most at a decent profit.

They did the same thing the next year and sold all of them but two.

After a few years, Croghan told Brett “You’re too good to work for me. You need to go to New Jersey and The Meadowlands where the big boys play.”

California racing was having a real rough go of it. Marge Everett was never a great fan of harness racing and succeeded in getting rid of it at Hollywood Park. Bay Meadows and Santa Anita had previously stopped racing standardbreds. For some time, harness racing appeared to have found a new and fairly successful home at Los Alamitos in Orange County. Then an impasse between management and the horsemen’s association developed. It ended up going to court and the horsemen won, but in the end they lost.

Instead of gracefully accepting the decision of the courts, the ownership of Los Al, simply closed the track to harness racing.

About the same time, Brett Pelling arrived in New Jersey.

He started with two head, but because of the dire California situation, horsemen from there were shipping horses for him to race in New Jersey.

“We seemed to be going to JFK every other week to pick up horses,” Brett said.

He had 20 of them claimed and ended the season with 40 head in his stable.

He would race all his horses with white overchecks so his clients in California could easily identify them.

His right hand man through all of the great years was Nifty Norman, who went on to do great things in his own stable after Brett left for Australia.

Among Brett’s first good horses, and those which he credits for bringing further attention to him were Viewfield Prince — a horse he owned himself that earned around $300,000 and allowed Brett to make a down payment on his home — the wonderful grey mare White Ruffles and Tax Credit.

As history shows, success breeds success. Owners started coming in droves to his stable.

The most horses he ever had in the stable was 90.

“I hated it,” Brett said. “I’m a hands on, anal type of guy. I like to have everything under my thumb and be in control. I admire a guy like Ronnie Burke. I don’t know how he is able to do what he does.

“I can honestly say that I’ve never worked to acquire a single horse. Any horses or owners that have come to my stable came to me, not the other way around.

“For me, the perfect size of a stable is 27. That’s what I have now. They fill one barn. It suits me perfectly.

“The first well known horse I got to train was Resonator. Thus began my association with Myron Bell and Brittany Farms. Silky Stallone and several other good ones quickly followed.

“I loved working for them and was grateful for the good horses and trust put into our operation.

“Through the years I’ve acquired what I believe to be an unfair reputation as being aloof or unapproachable. I don’t consider myself unfriendly. I’m just an intense guy, who is often immersed in thought. Saying that though, I do believe that I’ve mellowed somewhat.

“I’ve been extremely lucky to have Nifty (Norman) and Noel (Daley) working with me through the years. Not only are they outstanding horsemen, but they are both very outgoing and friendly, while I’ve tended to have been more reserved.”

Let’s talk about some of your horses. Who are the three best?

1. Rocknroll Hanover

“He had everything, especially great strength. If there would have been anything you might want to criticize about him, you’d have to tell me what it is. As close to perfection as I’ve had. His loss to the breed was incalculable.”

2. Western Ideal

“Just a wonderful horse. His battles with Dragon Again were epic. I’m surprised they are rarely mentioned when speaking about the great races in the history of our sport.”

3. Papi Rob Hanover

“He’s not there, yet. But to this point in his career, he is at least as good as any that I’ve ever had. Last year, he was just a big super endowed kid. This year he has graduated to manhood. The cessation of racing has really caused problems with his schedule. The way it looks right now, his first major race will be the Meadowlands Pace.”

You’ve had an incredible bunch of owners through the years. Let’s talk about some of them.
Dave McDuffee

“He’s a great friend. A great thinker on all aspects who does his homework before and at the sales. In the end he puts his total trust in me. He never second guesses.”
Bob Glazer (AKA Peter Pan)

“He was one of the greatest owners the sport has ever had. He was totally immersed in racing and truly loved it. He was a huge help to me when we had his horses. He would do all the things I hate to do but are necessary. He’d enter the horses. He knew all the requirements. I don’t believe he ever got over the fiasco at The Meadows where The Panderosa tested positive to four nanograms of morphine in his system. That is about as small a reading as it is capable of being found. What almost nobody remembers is there were eight other hometown trainers who came up with similar readings of morphine at the time. Some of them had never even had the smallest offense on their records. If that wasn’t environmental contamination, then there is no such thing. The local trainers got time served. They gave me nine months. Of course I appealed, but the time and money involved were substantial.

“I truly believe that Bob Glazer never recovered from it and that has to be a primary reason he is no longer in the business.

“Unfortunately, it’s now 20 years later and the same thing could easily happen again today.”

Brittany Farms

“They gave me my first chance at a high level. They sent me minor league stakes horses and we were fortunate to develop them to a point where they turned out better than expected.”

The Katz Brothers

“Terrific guys and awesome people, especially Alan, who has become a dear friend. They stuck with me through thick and thin. They’ve been in the game for a long, long time and know both the highs and lows. They are extremely knowledgeable and love everything about the business. Whenever my bills are sent out, invariably their check is the first to arrive. In all the years that I’ve had horses with and for them only once did anybody else’s check beat theirs. I kidded Alan about that.”

Clay Horner

“A beautiful man. Highly intelligent and enthusiastic. He is very understanding and can take bad news as well as good. He has a great understanding of the business and its people. He and his and my buddy, John Fielding, are among the best of human beings.”

David Brooks

“One of a kind. Most people would say that he was a horrific person and they’d probably be right. In relative terms, I got along with him pretty well, but it was only because he thought that he needed me more than I needed him. I also held the upper hand as far as getting paid was concerned. At all times, the value of his horses was far greater than the amount of money that he owed me. I’d tell him ‘David, okay, what are you going to do? Your choice is to pay me or I’m going to turn out all of your horses.’

“When he was on trial, the FBI interviewed me in Australia and then flew me over to testify on the sources of his money for the payments he made to me. Funny enough at his trial, he seemed quite happy to see me.”

You Down Under guys have had an incredible influence on harness racing here in North America. Many people say it traces to Ross Croghan. You would undoubtedly say it traces to Brian Pelling. But the names are just so prominent, Brett Pelling, Noel Daley, Nifty Norman, Chris Ryder, Tony O’Sullivan, Mark Harder, Ross Wolfenden, Aaron Lambert, Paul Jessop and undoubtedly some others that I’ve neglected. You’ve now got two of the top 10 drivers here in Andy McCarthy and Dexter Dunn. It’s hard to find a race card where you don’t see a bunch of “N” and “A” horses racing. Why is this so?

“Of course working hard is a factor, but not the only one. Almost all of them were very good horsemen to begin with. They adapted well to American racing, but also brought a good amount knowledge that they had learned in Australia and New Zealand. Added to what they learned here, it made for an excellent combination of skills.”

You made reference to the Scandinavian guys also having a great influence here. You jokingly said they are great horsemen, but the areas most of them seem to have some commonality are in stubbornness, arrogance and ignorance, but they also excel in determination. They indeed have and continue to be at or near the top of the trotting game here. You also mention that in the time that you left for Australia and returned, the trotting breed has undergone an almost complete transition. There has been far more change in trotters than with pacers. They are more athletic, smarter, better gaited and much easier to train. You are now the trainer of When Doves Cry. You said that it’s as though she comes from a different breed from the trotters that you previously knew. I think the reason can be summed up mostly in two words. They are “Valley Victory”. Do you agree?

“I’m sure that’s a big part of it, probably the biggest part. In addition to the speed and grit that Valley Victory contributed through the Muscles Yankee branch, there’s also the good sense and intelligence that comes from the branch from Cantab Hall and his sons. Then there’s the strength that you get when you combine them with the outcross to them in Andover Hall and Donato Hanover, mostly on the female end.”

Why are you not in the Living Hall of Fame in Goshen?

“You are asking the wrong guy. I’m not even sure how the process works. If not me, then certainly someone from Down Under. There have been several Europeans inducted, but not a single Aussie or Kiwi.

“Speaking only for me and I believe without any arrogance I think my achievements are worthy.

“Horses trained by me have earned in excess of $90 million, not the $60 million that the USTA carries. If anybody there cares enough, I can show them the error in their numbers.

“I’ve been the leading trainer at The Meadowlands 10 different years.

“My horses have won four Little Brown Jugs, four Meadowlands Paces, three North American Cups, I’ve trained 20 millionaires, the winners of nine Triple Crown Races and 11 Breeders Crowns.

“Something I was most proud of was having five stallions in the top 20 for five years after I left.”

Tell us about your move to Australia and then your return to America.

“There were several reasons. My work here was getting to be repetitive. I suppose many would call it burn out. That might have been a small part of it, but far from the main reason. We wanted our children to get to know their grandparents. We also felt that we were moving them to a better society. That was both true and untrue. Most of all, we felt that we were moving them to an area where they would have the chance of securing a better education. That most definitely was not true. Down there it was more of a laissez faire system. Here it is more competitive. I believe strongly that competition is a very good thing. It brings out the best in us.

“The two kids had moved back here. Their grandparents had passed away. Frankly, I missed it. It wasn’t a hard decision to come back.

“My one huge disappointment when I returned was except for Dave McDuffee and Alan Katz, most of the people for who I had previously trained and did well — for some of them exceptionally well — walked right by me as though as though I no longer existed. From several, not so much as a ‘Hello’ or ‘How are you doing?’ I was deeply hurt.

“One exception, though, was Frank Antonacci, for who I’d never trained. Frank had picked up on my mood and came to me and said that if I bought a yearling count him in for half of it. That’s a gesture for which I will be eternally grateful.”

How’s Life for Brett Pelling today?

“I’m back doing what I think I do best. I’m 62 years old, but thankfully the fire still burns in me. I’ve got my ideal sized stable. I’m lucky enough to have several very good horses in it and a terrific bunch of owners.

“I still wake up each morning eager to do what I do. I think I’m in a very good place.”

Have a question for The Curmudgeon?
Reach him by email at: hofmurray@aol.com.