A look back at the Hall of Fame career of trainer Chuck Sylvester on the occasion of his 80th birthday
by Murray Brown
Chuck Sylvester turned 80 on Thursday. I thought to myself “that’s old,” fully realizing that I was just slightly more than a year from reaching that milestone myself. For the record, Chuck doesn’t look or act like an 80-year-old.
Normally, he would be up North with his stable at this point in the year, but Chuck was still in Florida when I spoke with him on Monday.
He entrusted his horses to long-time horseman Hermann Heitmann. It is his plan to spend three or four days each month with his horses and then return to Florida for the duration of the month.
He hopes to be able to continue doing this until sale time, when he will spend a few days at both Lexington and Harrisburg.
What is the reason for this unusual schedule?
Chuck’s beloved wife of 47 years, Sharon, has suffered from dementia for the past several years. As is the norm with this terrible illness, its progression is only one way: the wrong way.
It has reached the stage where Chuck is wary of leaving her without his presence for any length of time.
Fortunately, their daughters Amy and Franci, live in close proximity to them in Deland, FL. They are able to bridge the time with Sharon while Chuck is gone.
I start most interviews with horse folk with the question, “How did you get into the business?”
The answer I generally receive is that they were either born into it or they started going to the racetrack and liked what they saw.
With Chuck it was neither. Moreover, he has never had a racing stable of older horses. He was a yearling man from the very beginning and has always been.
His father had a trucking business. He would transport gravel in his vehicles.
One day his dad told him to go to the local fairgrounds and help his trainer, an old guy by the name of Watson Vance with whom he had some horses.
Horses? His dad owned horses? Chuck had no idea.
He followed his dad’s instructions and went and helped the old fellow. Neither of them apparently knew what they were doing. In Chuck’s case that was because he had never worked with horses before. In Vance’s case it was because he was losing it.
On reflection, Chuck thinks that might have been the reason his dad sent him to help out.
He remembers not being much of a student and deciding that he wanted to become a horse trainer mostly because nothing else interested him.
Fate stepped in, his dad passed away and his mom inherited his share of the trucking business. Ultimately Chuck, together with his two cousins, Arnold and Dickie Stanley, bought her out.
Chuck became a dispatcher. He tried it for three years. He absolutely hated it. There were times when he didn’t have enough trucks to handle the work, other times he had too many and not enough work for them.
People were screaming at him. He realized he wasn’t made for it. He wanted to get out and decided to become a horse trainer.
He sold his share of the business and headed back to the fairgrounds.
Vance had reached the stage where he was so mixed up that he had Chuck training the same horses every single day. Chuck didn’t know any better, so he followed the old man’s directions.
It was a case of the blind leading the blind.
All the other trainers watched and laughed.
Eventually Chuck realized that what they were doing was wrong.
He decided that he had to self-teach.
He watched and asked questions.
He remembers one of the early instructions he received was “Go left, go two times around, then turn and go two times around”. The horse took off like a rocket ship. He felt like he had gone as fast as it was possible to go. He learned that he had gone a mile in three minutes.
Throughout it all, he watched and kept asking questions.
He said, “I don’t know how I picked it up, but I did.” Most would say he was just a natural horseman.
Two of his very first yearling purchases, Slomen and Sirloin, turned out to be solid free-for-all trotters.
He remembers going to his first Little Brown Jug and being enthralled. He saw the stables of Stanley Dancer and Billy Haughton and thought to himself “That’s what I want to have and be like.”
He went to one of the very first Kentucky Standardbred Horses Sales with Victor Bolton,a friend of his who happened to be in the diamond business.
His friend was there to buy a yearling. Chuck suggested to him that since he had never done this before, that the friend practice by making a bid or two so he would know what he was doing.
A yearling by the name of Whistling Wind was led into the ring. The auctioneer opened him up at $5,000. Bolton following Chuck’s advice made a bid of $6,000. Oops! There were no further bids. The colt was sold to him. “You better go take a look at the horse”, the friend said, “because if you find that he has only three legs, I can just leave. They have no idea who I am.” Chuck looked at the colt and found him to be okay.
His name was changed to Diamond Exchange and he turned out to be the first exceptional horse that Chuck ever had.
That horse would also turn out to become one of his biggest disappointments in racing horses.
Diamond Exchange was good enough to be an American invitee to the $125,000 race at Roosevelt Raceway held the week before the Roosevelt International. Chuck thought they had a decent chance to win it, or at worst to get a good piece of the big pie.
He distinctly remembers telling his driver Bobby Williams that the race was a mile and a half. He had to go around three times.
After a mile, Diamond Exchange was comfortably on top and Bobby started waving his whip and pulling him up. Caught up in the excitement, he had miscalculated the distance of the race.
The next day they were the laughing stock of the New York papers.
I asked Chuck to talk about his four Hambletonian winners and some of the other outstanding horses he has had.
“Obviously he was the greatest trotter I’ve ever had and one of the greatest ever. He was from Mystic Park’s first crop and Lou (Guida) was looking to buy as many of the better ones that he could. At the time, he was also giving them to Billy Haughton and Ray Remmen to train. I believe that he might have been the cheapest at $17,000. I also had another one at $90,000 that wasn’t much. Mack was good from the very start. I remember training him a mile in 2:22, a half in 1:02 fairly early. He was just a great horse. He did everything the way it should be done.”
“He wasn’t near the same price range as Mack, but even at $200,000 he turned out to be an amazing bargain. I bought him for Jim Wheeler, who then told me that he didn’t have the money to pay for him. He told me to get him some partners, which of course I had no choice but to do. Herbie Liverman came in as did Bill Perretti and David French. He wasn’t a perfect individual, he had one club foot and both his front feet were somewhat dished. But otherwise he was okay. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have paid anywhere near that amount for him. But he was a Valley Victory. The trotting world was justifiably Valley Victory crazy. People desperately wanted them. There were only a limited number available and people would pay. Muscles Yankee carried his banner well. He was truly a wonderful horse and became a sire for the ages. He did pass on the bad feet to a lot of his foals.”
Chip Chip Hooray
“He was just a little fella. If not for Neal Goldman’s insistence, there is no way that I would have bought him. He was just too small. Neal told me that if I didn’t come in with him, he would buy him all by himself. Neal has been a major influence on my buying habits through the years. He has his theories on breeding which have invariably been right. He is also the only reason why we bought Pine Chip. I guess that little Chip Chip Hooray benefitted from the overwhelming favorite Andover Hall making a break on the first turn. But he was a pretty good horse on his own. Later in the season he set a world record at Delaware, Ohio. I still have him. He lives on a small farm across from Spring Garden Ranch.”
Park Avenue Joe
“He was a $90,000 yearling. As a 2-year-old he was always sore and made breaks pretty consistently. Before getting Ronnie Waples to drive him in the Hambletonian, he had 12 different drivers including myself to race him. With him it was just a case of having one of the two best horses on the right day. As you undoubtedly recall that was the day he dead heated with Probe.”
“He was another Neal Goldman special at a reasonable price. We bought him for $17,000, the same price paid for Mack Lobell I sure wasn’t looking for a son of Arndon. But Pine Chip fit Neal’s pedigree requirements, so we looked at him. I liked him, but didn’t love him. We bought him anyway. He was truly a great horse. It was his misfortune to come out the same year as another great horse, American Winner, who might have been better at 3. When Castleton sold out, I begged Bill Perretti to buy him. He was interested, but as was Bill’s custom, he tried to low ball them. John Cashman grew tired of it and sold him overseas. I think Perretti would have done extremely well with him.”
“I had his dam. I inherited her at 3 from The Guru who had her at 2. She seemed alright, but she just kept getting fatter and fatter. It turns out that some pacer had got to her and that she was in foal. Lucky Chucky was her next foal. We looked at him and we liked him. We bought him for $10,000, a lot less than we thought we would have to give. People would talk about the hitch he had in his gait, but you would never know it sitting behind him. He was the only trotter that I’ve ever had that never made a break either in training or in racing.”
Let’s talk about some of your owners
“He’s a great friend, a great owner and most importantly a great man. He buys a couple of yearlings for me every year. We talk often. He and Tom Walsh, another terrific man, backed me when we bought Magical Acres years ago. They put me in charge. The only instructions either of them ever gave me was to not let the enterprise go into debt. We were to pay all our bills when they came in. We always made a profit with it, as small as it might have been.”
“More like a brother than an owner. He is responsible for a great deal of my success. I first knew him through a phone call. He wanted to buy a piece of Armbo Devona. He did at a good price that made everybody well. He has some kind of breeding formula which I don’t quite understand. One thing I do understand is that it works. I learned never to buck his strong opinions. He’s a real student of the game and understands most aspects of it.”
“He changed the game. There were those that disliked him . There were others that loved him. You can count me in the latter group. He was always very good to me and was a most generous guy. He rewarded success.”
“We rode the road to success with a lot of horses. One of the most hands on owners that I’ve ever had. Not hands on from the sense of telling me how to train or race his horses, but hands on in a business sense. He wanted to know how things were. If I gave any indication that a horse was in any way a liability, he was prepared to cut bait and take his losses.”
“There was only one Bill Perretti. There will never be another. I learned very early in the game to stay away from him when he had an audience. When he was ‘on stage’ he would say anything and abuse anybody, mostly for no reason at all. One on one, he could be an entirely different person. He could be reasonable and sometimes even thoughtful. He was dead game and certainly made his mark in the business.”
“One of the smartest people in the business. He had a very good teacher in his dad. But he was and is always thinking. He has done well for himself, not because he has been lucky, but because he is an extremely hard worker with a well-functioning brain.”
Geoff Stein and David Reid
“Just like the song Love and Marriage, it’s hard for me to think of one without the other. The loss of Geoff was a great loss to the business and especially so to everyone who ever had the privilege of knowing him. There were some who thought that Preferred Equine would suffer without Geoff, but instead its thrived. It’s not because they don’t miss Geoff. Its rather because David is the hardest working person I’ve ever known. Both you and I think it’s to a fault. In addition to being a hard worker, he’s smart and not afraid to take chances.
“Here’s a funny story (only in retrospect) about them. They had a nice trotting filly named Gingin Hanover. They owned her in partnership. The stock market collapsed and their partner got hurt bad. He told Geoff to buy him out at a very high price. Geoff was in no position at the time to buy him out at any price, let alone a very high one. I guess the man was in the midst of a minor breakdown, because that certainly wasn’t in character for him. He told Geoff that if he didn’t buy him out, he would have the filly killed. Geoff was terrified and we hired a security guard for her. All turned out okay though and Hanover ended up buying her.”
Arnold & Dickie Stanley
“Two of my cousins who ended up owning Raceway Park in Toledo, Ohio. They eventually sold it to casino interests and did very well by doing so. Two terrific guys who loved life and loved racing.”
What’s been your biggest disappointment in all your years of racing horses.
“Without a doubt, not winning the Elitloppet with Pine Chip. In my mind, he was not only the best, but far the best at the time. The Swedish authorities had changed the rules without my knowledge and had banned the use of two head poles. I suppose if I had known of it earlier, I could have trained him several times without them and he likely would have been able to compensate for their loss. As it turned out, he had to race without them cold turkey and just couldn’t handle it.
“Second, I guess, was Lucky Chucky not winning the Hambletonian. I think he was the best horse, but not that day.”
What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done?
“There are two, one worse than the other. The first was being the under-bidder on Muscle Hill. Neal, I and John Campbell had owned his brother Diesel Don. He was a pretty good horse, but had somewhat of a crooked leg. We looked at Muscle Hill and I just loved him. Neal and I were in. We asked John, but he said to count him out. I’ve never been one to go out and recruit owners. The two of us went to $55,000 and Greg Peck bought him for $57,000. I’ve often asked myself if we had that third partner, how far we would have gone and if we would have owned him.
“The second big mistake was Nuncio. I had been to Concord Farms and looked at him as a yearling. I liked him enough to get him x-rayed. He x-rayed clean. He was selling on Thursday and for some silly reason I left on Wednesday, without even leaving a bid. He brought a measly $7,000. I don’t know if I would have owned him. But I know for sure, I would have gone a lot further than that.”
Chuck, some would say that you have been a very lucky guy and to some degree they would be right. However, you’ve had more than your share of personal tragedy. You lost your son Troy. Sharon lost her son Kenny. Now you are dealing with Sharon’s worsening dementia. You’ve been broke and you’ve been flush. Being flush is far better.
“It’s been terrible in those respects. No parent should ever have to undergo the loss of a child. It’s horrible beyond belief. It’s something that you never completely recover from. But life doesn’t give you a choice in those circumstances, you either decide to go forward or you just give up.”
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