by Murray Brown
Tonight is the evening when in normal times, the Hall of Fame installation and dinner is held in Goshen. Sadly these are far from normal times, with both the Goshen and Canadian HOF dinners cancelled for the year.
I thought it most appropriate to write about the only inductee to my knowledge, who is a member of three major horse racing Halls of Fame.
That person is Jimmy Takter, a member of the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen, the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame and the Hall of Fame at the Nordic Trot Museum in his native Sweden.
I believe that most people would agree that Jimmy is the foremost horseman of this generation and certainly among the greatest horsemen of all time.
We had a long and sometimes meandering conversation on Monday.
The topics were varied, but almost entirely based on horses and family.
We know your father Bo William is generally acknowledged as having been one of the greatest Swedish horsemen ever. Were you always attracted to horses and harness racing?
“Yes and no. Of course, I couldn’t help but being attracted to the horses, because that was what our family, especially my dad did. But my brother Johnny was far more ‘addicted’ to the horses. When we were growing up, that is all that he did or ever thought about. I believe he could have become a better horseman than me. He certainly was a better driver. I consider him to be among, if not the greatest, drivers that I’ve ever seen.”
Yet, Johnny surprised many a little over a year ago by retiring near the peak of his career. Why?
“I believe it was as a result of too much self-inflicted pressure. He is a perfectionist and always wanted things to go perfectly. We all know that is not the way life is. There were times when he suffered from depression, sometimes deep depression. As you have discussed with me, you’ve seen it in your family. It’s a terrible affliction and you have to learn to live with it. I have my doubts as to whether his ‘retirement’ will be permanent. He still helps out in training a few and we might see him come back.”
Let’s talk about the evolution of the career of Jimmy Takter.
“For no great reason, other than I suppose to pursue a career in harness racing, I first came to America at the age of 17. I wasn’t hooked yet. But I was interested in learning more. I first went to work for the team of Hakan Wallner, Jan Johnson and Berndt Lindstedt. I stayed there for 11 months and then returned to Sweden for four years. Christina and I got married there when I was 22. We got married in June and moved to America for good in December of that year. I went to work for Soren Nordin where I stayed for two years.
“I decided that it was time to go out on my own. Christina and I bought a cheap pacer, Witsend’s Apollo, and managed to eke out a living racing him and winning 26 races. From there, you might say things grew.”
Who are the five owners that have had the greatest influence on your career?
1. Johan Dieden – “It’s easy to attract owners when you are doing well. It’s not that easy when you are an unknown. Mr. Dieden was there from the beginning, not only as a kind, generous owner, but also as a great friend.”
2. The Antonacci Family – “specifically the patriarch Sonny and his son Frankie. They’ve been great friends and loyal owners. The biggest bump in my career was when I got Moni Maker to train. It was Sonny who made that decision even before the group that owned her made the purchase. To this very day, I have no better friend than Frank Antonacci.”
3. John Fielding – “No better person exists in harness racing or anywhere else for that matter. We have been extraordinarily successful from the beginning of our relationship. He was in on the cheap horses and the expensive ones. For the most part, we’ve done well with most of them. John has never questioned me on anything relating to horses. I just tell him what we bought and for how much he is in and we go on from there. There has never been anything resembling a cross word between us.”
4. George Segal – “A true gentleman. He understands the business. We have been mostly involved with his fillies. It gives me tremendous pleasure to know how well they’ve done both on the racetrack and in the breeding shed.”
5. Marvin Katz and Al Libfeld – “Two wonderful gentlemen both in and out of harness racing. They have done things the right way. They’ve bought wonderful mares and fillies who turned out to be great producers. In the process they’ve developed what is probably on a mare for mare basis, the finest trotting broodmare band in the world.
“I’m sure I’ve left out some others who undoubtedly belong. But you asked me about five and those were the ones which I came up
Speaking with you, I notice you don’t often use the word “I”, but rather the term “We”. One of your greatest attributes has been your ability to compartmentalize and delegate authority. You speak of it as your “Team”. Let’s speak of its most intrinsic members.
1. My wife Christina “was far and away its most important member. Without her nothing we have done would have been accomplished. Primarily she is a great person, a wonderful wife and a great mother. But in terms of the stable, in certain areas, she was its guiding force. She handled most business aspects of the stable. She is a great communicator. She dealt with all of our owners. She was always there to answer their inquiries. If she didn’t know the answers, she would get them.”
2. Conny Svensson “was my farrier for 30 years. Before becoming a full-time blacksmith with us, he worked with me as a trainer. There were times when I think we must have shared the same brain. Many times when he came up with a thought, it was exactly what I was thinking and vice versa. Something people might not realize about me is that I look upon myself as being a pretty fair blacksmith myself. That’s probably why we think so similarly. We trained horses together and sometimes shod horses together.”
3. My advance man and yearling picker Perry Soderberg. “We have been friends for 37 years. When many people think of Perry today, they look upon him as being a guy who is looking for the top, high-priced yearlings. That is entirely because when he started doing this he was able to pick out fairly cheap yearlings with which we made millions of dollars. He has a great eye.”
* Author’s Note. When I mentioned to Jimmy the number of yearlings and hours spent looking at them by Perry, Jimmy jokingly replied “Why not? He sleeps for the remaining eight months of the year.”
Who are the five greatest horse trainers you’ve known?
1. Jean Pierre Dubois. “An incredibly unique individual. For him to have excelled in as many areas of horsedom as he has in all facets of them is without equal. A trainer, a breeder, a driver with trotters, runners, jumpers and even an occasional pacer and still remain a fantastic humble and generous human being. There’s only one like him.”
2. My father, Bo William Takter. “He wasn’t afraid to try different things. He was an innovator. Yet some of the things he tried that were initially laughed at turned out to be most successful.”
3. Stig Johanssen. “A legendary great horseman in Europe. He ran a great stable. In addition to being a great trainer, he was also a great driver.”
4. In his prime Chuck Sylvester was second to none. “He never had a large stable, but he had a great opinion and developed several champions including four Hambletonian winners.”
5. Ronnie Gurfein. “A terrific trainer. His opinions sometimes get him in trouble, but he is a really good guy. He is always willing to both learn and to help others to learn.”
5A. Ake Svanstedt. “One of the greatest horsemen ever who would has shown that he would be great anywhere. I’m sure that if you asked him, that Ake would say that he learned a lot from my father.
“As before, you have limited me to far too few. I arrived after the prime years of the Haughtons, Dancers, Simpsons, Millers and Ervins, so it would be unfair to not give them honorable mention. Their records speak for themselves.
“Another one that I would be unfair in omitting would be Ronnie Burke. What he does and has done in terms of running a stable of that size is beyond comprehension.”
Being as you are from Sweden, there is one name conspicuously absent from your list, a man that many Swedes might say was the greatest horseman ever – Soren Nordin.
“Mr. Nordin was undoubtedly a great horseman. He could do more with an ordinary horse than probably any trainer ever. I worked for him for two years and I learned a lot. I also learned some things with which I disagreed. I think that he was sometimes too hard on horses. He didn’t believe in breaks. I believe that many of his horses were in mortal fear of him. I view my relationship with horses to be a two way street. I respect them and I want them to respect me.”
Let’s talk about drivers. Who are your five best?
“I’m going to change that to the five who have had the greatest impact on my career, in alphabetical order: Yannick Gingras, Wally Hennessey, David Miller, Ron Pierce and my brother Johnny Takter.”
You are building up quite a legacy, even after retiring, not only with your horses, but also with the people who have worked with you. Three stables stemming from experience with Jimmy Takter are at or near the top of the trotting world in North America.
“Of course, I’ll start with my daughter Nancy. At her age, she has surpassed anything that I achieved at that time in my life. She is doing it with both pacers as well as trotters. She’s already had a Horse of the Year, numerous divisional champions and her job with Manchego has been a uniquely great act of horsemanship. If you had asked me at the end of her 3-year-old season what to do with her, I probably would have said she’s had enough. She needs to be a broodmare. She was tired. She did not seem happy. Nancy has nursed her to the stage where who knows what she might become?
The Melander brothers Marcus and Matthias worked for me for two years. They were terrific horsemen and hard workers. Their record speaks for itself. Can you imagine having two horses like Greenshoe and Gimpanzee as well as a few other good ones in the same year?
“Per Englom – My right hand man as well as sometimes my left for several years. There are no areas in which he is deficient. He is destined for greatness.”
You’ve had loads of great horses, let’s speak about the ones that you’d rank as your five best.
“That’s almost an impossible task and it certainly would be unfair to many that I leave out. One of the things I am most proud of is that we have 42 of our graduates standing as stallions throughout the world. I’ll give it a try anyway, but only with my trotters.
1. Moni Maker – “She’s all alone at the top and was a game changer for all those wonderful people associated with her. She stands all alone not only because she won so many classics races in so many countries, but also because she gave so much pleasure to all of us who participated in her world tour. She’s a big part of the lives of all who had anything to do with her.”
2. Father Patrick. “He was truly great as a 2- and 3-year-old — by far the best in his class. Although I won the Hambletonian that year with Trixton, his making a break in that race was one of the biggest disappointments in my career. I still have no idea why he did that and I probably will never know.”
3. Tactical Landing. “He and I just gelled when we got him. I did nothing radical with regard to changing anything significant. Bobby Stewart had given him a great foundation. I just don’t know why it happened, but it did. Before he got injured in his last start, I firmly believe that if he had gone on to race at 4 and 5, he would have become one of the greatest trotters ever. I’ve sometimes wondered what would have been the case if we had him from the beginning.”
4. Manchego – “We had her at 2 and 3 and she was a truly exceptional filly. But at the end of her 3-year-old season, I thought that she had enough. Nancy inherited her and made her even better at 4 and now at 5 than she was for me.”
5. Kadabra – “He was a horse that maybe had as much, if not more desire than any horse we’ve had in our stable. A real professional who put his game face on every time he stepped on a racetrack.”
What about our sport? Where are we going? What do we do wrong?
“There are so many things that we lack, but the number one is unity! Nobody works together or even wants to work together.
“The situation between Gural and Faraldo is a farce. These guys should be working together for the betterment of the sport. Instead, they are at each other’s throats every opportunity they get. Who gets hurt by this outrageous and childish behavior? Everybody, that’s who – including both of them.
“Our major organizations need leadership and restructuring. I have no doubt that the folks running USTA and the Hambletonian Society are well intentioned. They want what is good for the sport. But unfortunately in my opinion, they accomplish, very little.
“USTA and Standardbred Canada should be ONE RECORD KEEPING ORGANIZATION – nothing more.
“The leadership of our organizations should be based on merit and achievements. If who we presently have isn’t doing a good enough job, they should be replaced by someone who can do a better job. It seems like most of the leadership jobs in our major organizations become lifetime positions or pretty darn close to them. We need achievers, not necessarily just nice guys who are caring.
“If you were to ask me what above all have I become proficient in? I would say, including horse related items, I have become a good businessman.
“There are undoubtedly some good business people on these boards. But I ask again what have they done for the good of the sport. My answer would be: not much that is apparent.
“Another area where we are lacking is with our racetracks. A couple do a decent job. The others do nothing or next to it. Where is the welcome to the customer at most racetracks? Sorry, He’s gone AWOL. Look at the casinos and compare us to them. Unfortunately, there is little comparison.
“Everybody talks about the need for a commissioner, but because of state’s rights people say that is impossible. I say that there has to be some way the State workers can get along with a ruling body that knows and understands the sport.
“My ideal commission would consist of three knowledgeable people who can make important rulings regarding the sport. If they need to get states’ approval, then they need to try to work with the states. Something different needs to be tried.”
Let’s go back to Jimmy Takter. How is life for you these days?
“One word – Great!. As you may know I was facing what I thought was a life-threatening situation last year. They found a tumor in my neck that they now feel might have been there for a long time. It was bothering me a whole lot last year. They are now treating it with something called Nucca Therapy. I don’t really understand it, but I know it works.
“In my first year of retirement, Christina and I travelled the world. We went to Australia, new Zealand, California twice and spent a glorious month in Sweden. Now, the second year I became somewhat bored. I missed the horses. I’ve found a happy medium. I try to be of help to Nancy and Per, if needed.
In the winter, we are in Florida and I get over to Sunshine Meadows on Wednesdays and Saturdays and ride behind some of the Antonacci horses.
“All in all, life is pretty good. I’ve got a great wife, great kids and great grandchildren. I’ve got enough to keep me as busy as I want to be.
“Physically I feel fine.
“It’s pretty good being Jimmy Takter.”
Have a question for The Curmudgeon?
Reach him by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.