by Murray Brown
George Teague, Jr. was born into harness racing. His father and mother were, as he said, the two best horsepeople that he ever knew.
In writing this column, I tried to avoid race, but that was impossible.
At a time when the backstretches of racetracks all over America were filled with African Americans, very few of them were given the opportunity or the incentive to rise above the status of grooms.
That’s the culture in which George grew up.
His childhood idol was Lew Williams, the only black man installed in the Immortals section in Goshen.
Lew Williams wasn’t just a good black driver. He was one of the greatest drivers ever, he just happened to be black.
I spoke at length with Teague last week.
“Considering my age group, the fact that I’m overweight and suffer from diabetes, I guess I’m all right,” Teague said. “But given the times and what the country is going through, I’m trying to be as close to invisible as I can be.
“I’m mostly a homebody. I work with the horses. I’m around my family. For the most part I’m getting along fine.
“I’ve never known anything but horses and I’ve never wanted to do anything but be involved with harness racing.
“My dad was a great horseman and an equally good farrier. Most everything I initially knew was learned by watching him and my mom.”
Teague started with cheap horses and worked his way up to be able to buy some more expensive ones. Ironically, he has had more success with the less expensive ones and his non-commercial homebreds than he did with the high-priced bluebloods.
I asked him what he looks for in a yearling.
“Mostly I look at budget. I rarely could afford to buy ‘the flavor of the month.’ As Bill Wellwood would sometimes say, ‘I like to zig when everyone else is zagging.’ The difference between Bill and me was he could afford to do most anything he wanted. I couldn’t. I just didn’t have the money. I looked for the diamond in the rough. I looked for faults that I felt I could live with.
“For example, with Rainbow Blue, I only had five or six head at the time I got her. Artiscape wasn’t all that commercially attractive. But she was — very attractive! I had trained a couple of Artiscapes the previous year. They both had a lot of go to them, but they touched their knees. I didn’t think she would do that. She was a gorgeous looking filly and came from what at that time was considered a good racehorse family. The price was right at $10,500. She was racy and had a good look and eye.
“Did I think that she would turn out to be as good as she did? I sure as heck didn’t. But she showed class from the very beginning. I truly believe that if she had stayed together, she would have been the greatest race mare ever.
“My two greatest horses were Wiggle It Jiggleit and Lather Up. At first, I was tempted to say Wiggle It Jiggleit alone at number one, but Lather Up was just as good and had maybe a hair more pure speed.
“They both came along when we were downsizing the stable operation.
“They were both non commercially attractive homebreds, but if you look real deep, you will find some family in both.
“Wiggle It Jiggleit showed tremendous ability at 2, but was never quite sound. I tried to protect him because I just knew if I could come close to getting him sound, he could be extra special. We opened him up at three when he showed what he really was. His Jug was probably the greatest horse race many people have ever seen. Actually, he probably was never one hundred per cent sound a single day of his life. He was a truly great 3- and 4-year-old. He is a beautiful horse and still has great charisma. After all sorts of experimenting we found his main problems were in his hind ankles. He’s obviously not what he once was, nor will he ever be. He will tell us when he’s had enough and he will have a home with us for life.
“I believe that Lather Up at the top of his game was the fastest horse to ever look through a bridle. In truth, his record shows that he is, although he shares the record with Always B Miki. He was never perfectly sound either. He had an OCD in his stifle, which is just about the worst place to have one. I think the few times he went to running was caused by that bothering him. His performance the day he took his record was beyond description. I truly believe that he might have gone faster if Montrell had really asked him.”
You brought up Montrell, How about him?
“Montrell is the greatest son a father could ever have. He’s always been a hard worker and a terrific young man as well as a great citizen. He’s won the Jug, the North American Cup and the Meadowlands Pace. He has great hands, a great sense of speed and is an excellent horseman. Yet in my opinion, he doesn’t get near the amount of drives his ability should get him. I realize that its very competitive out there and there are a lot of good drivers. Is it racially biased? I really don’t want to believe that it is. But I cannot say without reservation that it isn’t.
“I’ll give you an example. When he was doing extra well with Wiggle It Jiggleit, Sam Beegle asked Montrell if he would come to Harrah’s Philadelphia for an autograph session. Sam said he would surely get some drives and hopefully add some spark to the night.
“He did get some drives — one in the first race and another in the 12th. Between them nothing, nada. This is Philadelphia, not The Meadowlands on Hambletonian day, although Montrell has acquitted himself very well there. The judges presumably knew he was going to be there. Never a night goes by where they don’t assign a number of drives because of no shows or drivers being listed behind multiple horses. To my knowledge, they didn’t put him behind a single horse.”
Through your years in the business, how have you generally been treated at racetracks or in the business in general?
“I would say, generally speaking we — by we I mean our team, myself, Montrell, my sister Brenda, my trainer and dear friend Clyde Francis and Big Mike who took care of Wiggle It Jiggleit — very well, certainly as well as others. At my home turf Dover and Harrington, The Meadowlands, Canada, Ohio and just about everywhere else we have been treated well and with a welcoming attitude.
“There is one glaring omission. That is the cesspool known as Yonkers Raceway. Anytime I’ve been there and had business to conduct, the best I can say is that I was always treated with contempt.
“One night, Wiggle It Jiggleit won the Levy and the driver who brings people to and from the winner’s circle refused to take me, Clyde and Big Mike to the circle in his vehicle. Can you imagine that? The owner, trainer and groom of the horse and he wouldn’t take us to the winner’s circle.
“In addition to Montrell, I have two wonderful daughters who run the office. We are truly a complete family operation.”
Throughout your career you’ve been known as a horseman who has been able to acquire good, sometimes great horses at relative bargain prices. We’ve talked about some of you best ones, let’s talk about some of your other good horses:
Southwind Lynx — Cost $42,000, Earned $1,763,389
“A real good honest horse. Not too many horses have won two million-dollar races inside of a month. He is one of them.”
Badlands Nitro — Cost $16,000, Earned $1,763,389
“He was an excellent horse who always raced well. It was his misfortune to come out the same year as Somebeachsomewhere, Shadow Play and Art Official. He would have done more, except that he started bleeding towards the end of his 3-year-season. He was never quite the same after that.”
Total Truth — Cost $18,000, Earned $2,022,433
“Very fast horse. He could be a little pouty at times. When in the mood he could race with anyone.”
Somwherovrarainbow — Homebred, Earned $1,342,433
“Rainbow Blue was one of the few great mares who was able to come close to reproducing herself. Actually, this filly might have had more pure speed than her momma. She just didn’t have the overwhelming grit and class that she had. Of course, in my opinion, no other mare ever did.”
Danae — Cost $15,000, Earned $529,099
“She was one of the most difficult training lessons I ever had. Dr. Kenny Seeber helped me enormously with her. I doubt that she would have become the filly that she did without his help. Of course, she won the Hambletonian Oaks. Today she might be better known as a broodmare, being the dam of the great Propulsion and one of the million-dollar yearlings sold in Kentucky last Fall.”
Delmarvalous — Cost $25,000, Earned $899,123
“He was a gorgeous yearling. He had high speed, but wasn’t always able to sustain it. He won the Adios among other races.”
Mr Wiggles — Cost $50,000, Earned $1,171,484
“He was an extremely tough horse who always tried hard. He had an ankle that bothered him. He was Montrell’s first drive and of course he is the sire of Wiggle It Jiggleit.”
Fancy Filly — Cost $15,000, Earned $1,089,806
“She wasn’t very big or stout, but she really tried all the time. I can’t recall her ever going a bad race.”
Isabella Blue Chip — Cost $40,000, Earned $792,069
“She always had trouble with her feet. She stepped on a quarter as a yearling and took off a good piece of a foot. She wasn’t the best gaited filly, but she always tried.”
Feel Like a Fool — Cost $30,000, Earned $1,269,988
“He was well named. He was somewhat goofy. He never got over seeing things that were not there. He loved sitting behind a helmet and raced best that way. Maybe doing that prevented him from seeing non-existent things.”
Western Ace — Cost $20,000, Earned $1,891,133
“He was just a little guy. But was ultra-tough for a little horse. He never got tired. He could go five quarters and be just as fresh the fifth one as he was the first.”
Custard The Dragon— Cost $28,000, Earned $778,057
“Just a perfect racehorse. He gave his all in every start. A real pleasure to have in our stable.”
Artcotic — Cost $3,000, Earned $616,548.
“She was an ultimate overachiever. She would have earned a lot more, except that she made breaks. We were never able to figure out why.”
Moonbeam — Cost $8,000, Earned $772,486
“Finished second to Somebeachsomewhere in the Metro and was an extremely talented horse.”
Jimmy Bernstein told me a terrific story about Moonbeam.
“I was at George’s place and we were training a set of five 2-year-olds,” Bernstein said. “We came a last quarter in 25 and a piece with me driving and George said to me, ‘You like him? I gave $8,000 for him.’ I said I loved him. George then said, ‘You now own 10 per cent of him. That’s the kind of incredibly generous guy George Teague is.”
With a resume listing horses like that, the majority coming from modest beginnings, one would think that you would be in the Living Hall of Fame, Why aren’t you?
“I’ll answer that the same way that Brett Pelling did a couple of weeks ago when you asked that question of him. I don’t know. I don’t even know how the process works. I don’t think that prejudice plays a part in it. At least I hope it doesn’t. I think I as well as several other worthy people have been overlooked. I do know that there aren’t too many who have had two Horses of the Year and were involved with the breeding, raising and racing of the fastest(tied) standardbred ever, who are not in.”
What do you see in the future for harness racing?
“Unless we start doing some positive things, I see it as being quite bleak. We have done next to nothing to help ourselves. When we had the casino windfall, we took the money and ran with it. So few of us have done anything to help the sport. Like them or not, the politicians control our future. The DSOA and I held a fund raiser at my farm which raised $55,000 for the Governor’s campaign. We need to help those who have the power to help us. That Governor is on the record as saying that the horse industry is inviolable.
“Instead of investing in the sport, much of the new found money by horsemen went to trucks, TVs, better living and that’s all great, but some of it was needed to be put back in the business that puts food on our table.
“Our marketing is nil. We need to take some lessons from the casinos, but maybe it’s too late. Take Harrington as an example, they bus people to the casino every Saturday night. The have a sumptuous buffet that includes chitlins. Most people probably don’t know what chitlins are. But they are looking for diversity among their clientele.”
Let’s leave Montrell out of it for now. Who are the best drivers you’ve been associated with?
“1. Ronnie Pierce, 2. Tim Tetrick, 3. Brian Sears, 4. Corey Callahan, 5. Tony Morgan.”
Who have been the greatest horsemen with whom you’ve been associated?
“1. My mom and dad. 2. My sister Brenda. She works circles around me or just about anybody I know. 3. Clyde Francis — A great friend and a wonderful horseman. 4. Dr. Kenny Seeber – As great a horseman and veterinarian as ever lived. He helped me with so many of my good horses. When he passed away, an important part of my life left me. As much as I miss his horsemanship, I miss his friendship more. 5. Tony Morgan – as wise a horseman as there ever was. Always there to help anybody.
“I would also be remiss in not giving thanks to all the wonderful owners who put their trust, confidence and money in our operation. We will be eternally grateful for their support. Without them, we wouldn’t have come close to achieving the success that we’ve had.”
What does the future hold for George Teague?
“Primarily I would like to give Montrell more of a chance than I ever had. I would like to be able to do what I want to, primarily to have peace of mind. I need to stay healthy for my family. Family means everything to me. In addition to Montrell and our two daughters, my wife Jo and I, now have an adopted 5-year-old daughter. We have six wonderful grandkids. Life is generally pretty good.”
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