Chris and Nicola Ryder: harness racing’s power couple

Chris and Nicola Ryder: 
harness racing’s power couple

October 25, 2020

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Harness racing can thank Nicola Ryder for bringing her husband, Chris, to the United States where he has thrived as a trainer with Hall of Fame credentials.

Murray Brown

If there is a finer couple in all of harness racing than Chris and Nicola Ryder, I have yet to meet them. Chris is a well-known and extremely successful horse trainer with Hall of Fame credentials.

What very few people realize — and what I just recently found out — is that if not for Nicola, its’ quite possible that North American harness racing might not have benefitted from Chris’ achievements here.

Chris and Nicola arrived on these shores from their native New Zealand in 1989, not because Chris was going to pursue his livelihood as a trainer and at that time also a driver of harness horses, but rather because Nicola, a certified accountant, had been transferred to the United States by Ernst & Young one of the world’s big four accounting firms.

Actually Chris arrived, not with the intention of being a trainer/driver, but rather wanting to be an agent in the sale and purchase of horses.

He had been here before for several short periods where he was involved in the sale of Down Under racehorses.

He describes life as a horse agent as being much easier than being a trainer. When selling horses you are not much more than a conduit in a transaction.

You arrange for a buyer and seller, collect your commission and then it’s off to the next horse.

You don’t have to worry about the health of your horses, the help showing up, dealing with owners, stakes payments and getting your bills paid.

Unfortunately, it turned out that there was not enough business to sustain life as an agent.

Chris was nowhere near a novice when it came to training horses. His father had been a successful horse trainer and horse dealer in New Zealand, meaning Chris has been around horses all of his life.

Adapting to being a trainer was virtually a gimme.

“He who doesn’t work goes hungry,” Chris said.

Chris, like many successful people, describes himself as being a lucky guy.

The couple’s original plan called for them to be in the U.S. for two years, which then stretched to five years and they now are both citizens and permanent residents of the United States.

Among his first clients was Sampson Street Stable, AKA Lou Domiano.

His first real good horse that he trained for Domiano and Matt Meizinger was Sealed N Delivered who became Two-year-old Pacing Colt of the Year.

That same horse was responsible for Chris’ greatest disappointment in the business. He had jogged in his Meadowlands Pace elimination winning it in 1.50.

In the final, he went off at 6-5 as the overwhelming favorite. He finished last in a race that went two seconds slower than the elimination had.

The horse had choked in the first turn. Such are the perils of horse racing.

Chris’ best day ever occurred just two weeks ago on the last day of the Grand Circuit meeting at Lexington on Sunday, Oct. 11.

Over an off track, Bettor’s Wish annihilated the best free-for-allers in the country in winning the Allerage Farms Open Pace. Also, Party Girl Hill remained undefeated while crushing the boys in winning her Tattersalls Pace division.

Because of his quiet and generally unassuming nature, Chris is sometimes inclined to glide under people’s radar. But from the beginning he has been a force with which to be reckoned.

Chris, your best racing day ever was two Sundays ago when Bettors Wish and Party Girl Hill both put on magnificent shows. It will never happen, but which one would win if they were in to race together?

“I think he’d probably beat her, but not by much, if in fact he would. The jump between 3 and 4 would give him a huge edge.”

Chris you have been inordinately successful with horses that haven’t cost a great deal or who at a given point in time might not have been thought to have a superlative pedigree. Most of your success has been achieved through purchasing yearlings and making good and sometimes great horses out of them. What do you look for in a yearling?

“Of course, I want them to be correct, but there are certain what I deem to be minor faults that I can put up with. I like an athletic horse. They don’t have to be big, but I want them to appear strong and well proportioned. I like a horse to appear alert. I don’t want a dullard. I am not one for seeing horses turned out in the paddock. On the other hand, I am big on watching videos. I guess many trainers put a great deal of credence into seeing them in a paddock. That probably helps the first or second time a yearling has been turned out. But after they have been turned out numerous times they get tired of it and often do not perform to their best. I realize that videos can be edited, but you cannot make a bad going horse go well. One of the reasons I like videos is when they are taken, it is usually fairly early in the time that they have been in. Logic tells me that they are at their most athletic phase at that time.”

You mentioned that you can put up with some minor faults what are they?

“Size is one thing. A yearling is just a baby. They are going to grow. Of course, I don’t want a peanut. But I have no problem with one who many would consider to be slightly small, especially if it isn’t an early foal and is otherwise okay.

“I can put up with offset knees and sickle or straight hocks providing they are not so in the extreme.

“I once was given a small Presidential Ball filly with quite offset knees to train because the owner felt that she wouldn’t bring much in a sale. She turned out to be Cathedra Dot Com.”

Certainly from my experience and from what I’ve seen and heard you are considered one of those guys who is extremely patient and can get along with virtually anybody. I assume that you train your horses in the same manner. You’ve had some owners who some might consider to be difficult, yetyou’ve managed to keep them for longer than most have.

“I can get along with most people. As long as they are fair. I’ve been asked how I managed to get along with and kept Norman Smiley and Richard Young for as long as I did. I considered them both to be excellent owners. They wanted a fair shake and that is what I gave them. I still consider both of them to be my friends.”

Let’s talk about some of your best horses.

Bettors Wish – “He’s just a wonderful horse. I still don’t really understand how I got him as reasonably priced as I did. Some people say he is small. But he is no smaller than Betting Line or even Bettors Delight himself. He had a very good video and the price was right. He’s all heart and all class. He just keeps on giving.”

Party Girl Hill – “Her owner describes her as a Gift from God. I think that’s a good description. She’s just amazing. She’s the best filly I, or possibly anyone, has ever had. That’s saying a lot because I’ve been blessed with more than my fair share of good fillies.”

Mystical Sunshine – “She turned out to be much better than we ever dreamed she would become. We bought her as a 2-year-old from the Harrisburg sale for Alvin Jacobson. She was as honest a trotter as you will find. She ended up winning two Breeders Crowns for us.”

Put On A Show – “She was extremely fast, but a little tricky to train. She might have done better, but she was prone to tying up. We were actually lucky to get her. Richard Young was primarily focused on an Artsplace filly. Put On A Show was his second choice. The Artsplace filly sold first and ended up bringing $120,000 and Richard was the under bidder on her. Put On A Show sold a little later and Richard bought her for $75,000.”

I Luv The Nitelife – “She was a wonderful filly, Tough as Nails. She never lost a race once she made the top. Timmy Tetrick did a wonderful job with her.”

Sealed N Delivered – “A big surprise. Nobody, least of all me, expected him to turn out as good as he became. He had high, high speed. He was the 2-year-old of his year. He unfortunately had a disappointing 3-year-old season.”

McArdle – “A beautiful horse. I thought he was the nicest yearling Perretti had that year. But he was by Falcon Seelster and I guess that turned some people off. Norman Smiley bought him for a bargain $32,000. He was a real warrior on the racetrack. It seemed he always drew bad. He won the Haughton out of the 10 hole.”

Cathedra Dot Com – “She wasn’t sold as a yearling because she was small, had bench knees and was by Presidential Ball. Here’s an interesting tidbit. Both she and Bunny Lake each won over a million dollars at 3 the same year.”

Art Major – “I had him at 2 and he just kept tying up. I couldn’t do much good with him. Bill Robinson got him at 3 and trained him every day and he became a top horse.”

Chris, You were the first person to use Dexter Dunn regularly and I understand that to a great degree you and Nicola were responsible for him being here.

“To a small degree I suppose we were. Dexter had been over here in the World Drivers Championship and liked what he saw. We built a friendship with him and knew from seeing him drive and hearing of his exploits in New Zealand that he would be able to handle himself on any racetrack anywhere. Nicola helped him with an immigration lawyer and the paperwork necessary to get him able to stay here. When he first came over, he stayed with us for awhile. I started using him immediately. The association has benefitted both of us.”

Okay, Chris, I’ve had enough of you.I’m going to spend some time with the person responsible for a good part of your success, your wife Nicola.

Nicola, You are the reason that Chris is here. You’ve helped him and continue to do so with the business aspect, but you also have been personally involved in the harness business. You’ve worked at Perretti Farms for the last 12 years and still are there as the farm manager. How did this come about?

“Our two boys, Patrick and Samuel, had grown up and I no longer needed to be at home to care for them. I was looking for something to do. At the same time, Perretti Farms was looking for a bookkeeper. With my experience in accounting I felt I was qualified and applied and was hired.”

Chris told me an interesting story of how that came about.

“Well, I had previously worked in New York and was used to making more money than what they were offering. I told Mr. Perretti that I would take the job only if the salary was 50 per cent more than what they were offering. Bill said, ‘This girl has spunk. I like that. Pay her what she is asking.”

You mentioned your boys, tell us about them.

“Patrick is 26 and Samuel is 24. They were both born in America. Patrick is married to Nadia and they just recently bought a home in Colorado Springs. Before going out there, he decided that he would like to spend a season on the road working with the horses with his dad. What a great season he chose! He’s been on the road with Party Girl Hill and has enjoyed every minute of her fantastic season.Samuel is living in Lakeland, Florida where he is working at Merrill Lynch.”

Unlike the wives of many trainers, you are almost always a presence at horse sales with Chris.

“I’ve come to really love the horses, but Chris does all the work at the sales. My job, if I have one, is to help keep him organized and try keep him focused on the ones that he and perhaps more importantly, his owners want him to look at.”

You’ve been at Perretti farms all this time making sure that it continues to be well maintained as Bill and Cindy wish it to be. It’s my understanding that it has been sold.

“The sale is not quite completed yet, but it’s fairly likely that it will be sold in the very near future.”

I’ll end, as I began this column. There are no nicer people in this entire business than Chris and Nicola Ryder. If you make their acquaintance, you will undoubtedly be enhanced by the experience.

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

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