Howard Taylor — the sport’s biggest owner

Howard Taylor — the sport’s biggest owner

July 4, 2021

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Ownership of 125 horses likely makes the lawyer from Philadelphia the single individual that owns the most horses.

by Murray Brown

*** Editor’s Note: Tales from The Curmudgeon will be on a two-week hiatus after this column while the author is on vacation. The column will return for the July 25 issue.

If one were to ask which single individual was involved in the largest number of horses in training, most people one would likely answer Al and Michelle Crawford and Brad Grant. Of course, one might also say the Burke Family or the Bruscemi-Weaver partnership. However the most pertinent words would be “single individual.” In that case, the winner by a runaway would be Howard Taylor, who has somewhere in the area of 125 horses in training of which he owns all or part of. As he says, “I got carried away last fall. Of the 125 horses I own, 47 are 2-year-olds.”

If one asked that same question relating to the number of trainers working for a single individual, the difference would probably be greater. Howard has over 40 trainers taking care of his horses. The horses range anywhere from claimers of the cheapest variety to world champions such as the Hambletonian winner Atlanta.

Taylor, now 62 and possibly looking at retirement, started his lifelong journey in harness racing at the age of 12.

He has been involved in just about every phase of the sport. He has groomed, trained and even driven horses in competition.

His parents, fellow attorney father Jerome and his mom Judith always had a stable of anywhere from 15 to 20 head.

For as long as Howard can remember, he was hooked on horses and just about everything to do with them. However, in order to maintain his “fix”, he needed to have a full-time job. He chose to follow his dad, not only in the ownership of horses, but also in the legal profession.

He describes Jerry Taylor as being “a great lawyer and a great teacher.” However, as with many great lawyers, Jerry sometimes could be difficult with whom to work. Howard eventually surpassed his father in horse ownership. They always maintained a strong familial bond. His father told him that he was crazy in owning so many horses.

“I suppose, as usual, Jerry was right. I got to where I couldn’t help myself. I just loved the sport. The more horses I owned, the more I wanted to own. I was fortunate in that I began with mostly claimers. I believe that I was quite proficient in recognizing talent. We did very well and slowly, and sometimes not so slowly, rose through the ranks. I can’t remember when, if ever, racing horses was ever a losing proposition for me.

“Actually some of the best, or at least the most valuable horses I’ve owned were mostly a result of good fortune. I was usually lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.”

Let’s start at the beginning, Howard. How did your affinity to horses begin?

“Through my parents. They owned them. They went to the racetrack several times a week. When they went, I went with them. Those were the glory days of Liberty Bell and Brandywine and the beginning of Pocono Downs. I tried to be involved with just about everything involved with the sport. I groomed and took care of them, I trained them and even drove some of the ones that I owned. It just grew and grew. To this very day it remains a fixation. Aside from my family, it is still the biggest part of my life today. It has expanded to the point where I am involved in stallion ownership and also in breeding my own.”

Through your years in the sport you’ve probably been involved with a hundred or more horsemen. Who were the three best in numerical order?

“1. Del Cameron. It’s somewhat sad that if you mentioned his name to the majority of horsemen today, they wouldn’t recognize it. In addition to have been one of the greatest trainers and drivers in the history of the sport, he was also one of the greatest gentlemen to have ever been involved in it. The Cameron family, including Del’s brother Dana and his two sons Warren and Gary, were excellent horsemen and also possessed the élan and gift of life that Del had. Unfortunately, together with their talent, the male members of the family were also afflicted with heart conditions that resulted in their early losses.

“2. Jimmy Takter. You only need look at the record. Jimmy probably developed more champions on a horse-for-horse basis than any trainer in the history of the sport. I believe that the job he did with Tactical Landing just very well might have been the greatest feat of horsemanship with which I’ve ever been I’ve ever been associated. Jimmy was directly responsible for my owning the two most valuable horses that I’ve owned Tactical Landing and Tall Dark Stranger.

“3. Ronnie Burke. Ronnie just might very well be the eighth wonder of the world. I don’t know how he does all that he does. In addition to working directly with just about all of the horses in the stable — including training, warming them up, classifying, staking, buying and selling and managing the large work force that he has at numerous racetracks, he still manages to see every race that his horses are in and those of numerous others.”

What would you consider to have been the most gratifying win in your half century in the sport?

“It would be easy for me to say Atlanta winning the Hambletonian, Tall Dark Stranger winning the Meadowlands Pace, Tactical Landing winning the Breeders Crown or probably a half dozen or more richer and more prestigious races. For me though, it would have to be Jennie Fanetta winning the Pennsylvania Sires Stakes final. With the others, I was in effect a passenger who was involved in their ownership, to some degree, through the vagaries of fate and probably a great deal of luck. With Jennie, it was all me. I bred her. She raced solely under my ownership throughout her racing career and I am so happy to still be her owner. She most definitely owns a piece of my heart.”

You’ve been fortunate to have been involved in ownership with a great group of friends for almost as long as you’ve been involved in the sport.

“I’ve been partners with Ed Gold and Abe Basen for a long, long time. We’ve been to the races together and spent innumerable times in meeting at our favorite OTB parlor at Garden State Park. This led to a great many horse partnerships which still exist and hopefully will continue to as long as we breathe air.”

You are the co-breeder of the highest priced pacing yearling in the history of the sport, a colt now named One Eight Hundred. There’s an interesting story that goes along with him.

“I and Ed Gold each owned 25 per cent, with Chuck Pompey owning the other 50 per cent. Chuck wanted to keep him. Ed strongly felt that the marketplace should determine how much the colt would be worth. Chuck told all a sundry that he was going to buy the colt. I felt that Ed was right. Offering the colt in the open market was the only way to sell him fairly. Even though he was a magnificent horse, none of us ever dreamed that he would bring the $800,000 price that he brought. I was watching him being sold on the Internet. I had told Chuck that I might come in for a small part of him if he ended up as his buyer. So did Chris Oakes. When the price hit $700,000 I called Chris and instructed him to stop bidding. There was no way I was going to buy another 10 per cent, in addition to the 25 per cent that I already owned 25 per cent of and invest another $70,000 or more in it. Chris felt the same. So, he was sold to Nancy Takter for $800,000. Thus the name. Even after he had brought $800,000, Chuck was still angry that he didn’t own him. I’m guessing he still is. The next year his Sweet Lou brother brought $50,000. After selling the brother the year before, there was no way we were going to let the Sweet Lou colt go for $50,000. We bid him in and gave him to Nancy to train. Right now he appears to be a pretty nice colt. He has already won a baby race in 1.55.”

Let’s hear about some of the other “lucky” or “accidental” buys that you’ve made.

Atlanta

“I had attended the Harrisburg sale as I always do. I received an invoice for my purchases. On it were two horses, Django Unchained and Courtney Hanover who were unfamiliar to me. I called the sales company and asked them about the two fillies. They said that they were billed to me upon instructions from Rick Zeron. I didn’t remember agreeing to buying them, but I thought to myself, ‘why not?’ Rick is a terrific horseman. I’ve bought into horses for less reasons than that. So I bought into both horses. Courtney Hanover developed into a pretty nice trotting filly. Django Unchained’s name was changed to Atlanta. As Paul Harvey would say, ‘that’s the rest of the story.’”

Tall Dark Stranger

“I was approached by a well-known trainer who encouraged me to buy “’the greatest colt I’ve ever seen.’ A day or two later he came back and said there was vet who had a slight question about his ability to stay sound. The colt was going to bring a whole lot of money, so he didn’t want to take the risk. That very same day Jimmy Takter came to me and spoke the very same words about the very same colt, ‘I just saw the greatest colt I’ve ever seen.’ Jimmy had already purchased him. I told Jimmy what I had heard. He responded that he’d check on it. Shortly later he called me back. The colt was okay, he said. ‘You need to buy a piece of him.’ He has turned out to be the most valuable horse with which I’ve ever been associated.”

Tactical Landing

“In 2016, I had concluded that I had spent all the money I was going to spend on yearlings. There was this magnificent brother to Mission Brief that was expected to top the sales. I told people that I was out before I was persuaded to be in. He brought $800,000. I’d be lying if I said that until he landed in the stable of Jimmy Takter he had been somewhat of a disappointment. He always had talent, but he had been unable to put it all together. Jimmy, the great horseman that he is, within a relatively short period of time was able to put all the pieces together. At the end of his 3-year-old season, Tactical Landing was not only the best 3-year-old in North America. He was also the best trotter on the continent.”

Buck I St Pat

“I was looking to buy a young trotter in Ohio. I was speaking to Bob Harper who said that he had a filly in his stable who could destroy anything in Ohio or maybe everywhere else. Her name was Buck I St Pat. She was somewhat of an off bred, being by Jailhouse Jesse and coming from a family that was anything but prominent. But man, could she ever trot fast! I contacted my buddies Ed Gold and Abe Basen and we bought her for $75,000. Her previous owner Dr. Fuller asked if he could stay in for a quarter. All she did was become a world champion, Trotting Mare of the Year and won numerous stakes on her way to earning almost two and a half million dollars.”

Let’s talk a little about your law practice.

“I am primarily a personal injury lawyer. I have two associates who are wholly involved with personal injury. I would say that about 40 per cent of my practice relates to harness racing, with the remainder dealing with personal injury. The horse racing part of it has evolved through the years, probably mostly because to a great degree nobody else has been doing it.”

Through the years, with some people, you have gathered a reputation of representing some people who have been perceived as not playing the game on a level playing field. How do you feel about this?

“Firstly, everybody is entitled to fair representation. That is the basis of fair play and our legal system. That is my primary goal. There have been some cases that I’ve turned down or advised my clients to make a settlement. This sport has been a great part of my life and my life’s pleasure. There is no way that I would knowingly cause it any harm either directly or indirectly. On the other hand, I will vigorously not stand around and allow harm to be unnecessarily caused to either myself or my clients.”

Okay, you are 62. You say you are nearing an age when you might be ready to hang up you law degree. What happens then?

“I’m pretty happy with my life. I have a wonderful wife and three daughters who have grown to be amazing young women. I will never leave harness racing. In fact, when I do see myself retiring from the law, I foresee spending more time with my horses.

“I like and attend most major sporting events in the Philadelphia area. My favorites are the Eagles, with who I live or die. I never miss a game. We also have tickets to the Flyers, Phillies and 76rs whose games we regularly attend.

I love to eat and we go to restaurants (pre-COVID-19) regularly. At one time or another, I’ve owned four different restaurants, one of which, Verdad, was one of the very best in the area. What a difficult business, probably the hardest there is.

“I’ve said that I’d never get back in the restaurant business again, but I’ve said similar things about similar situations before. My wife would kill me if she thought I was even thinking of doing it.”

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

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