Brett Bittle on carrying on the Yankeeland and Keller family legacy

A conversation with the trainer of Darlene Hanover, the winner of the inaugural $250,000 Delmonica Hanover held Saturday at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono.

by Murray Brown

In writing this column, I almost always submit the first question and most of those thereafter. This week, at the start, Brett Bittle first asked me: “Why would you choose someone like me to devote your story?”

The answer, my friend, is easy and the reasons are numerous.

Primarily, you are an excellent horseman and a good person who has left his mark on this great sport.

There are some trainers, but not too many, who have had a part in choosing and training Hambletonian Oaks, Breeders Crown and James Doherty Memorial (formerly Merrie Annabelle) winners.

Secondly, and this might arguably be primarily, you are part of and now with the recent passing of Charlie Keller III, the face of one of the greatest harness racing families of the last century, that of the Kellers of Yankeeland Farms. The week Charlie Keller III died, Bittle won the inaugural $250,000 Delmonica Hanover at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono with Darlene Hanover, his only trotting filly. It must be kismet.

It certainly could be said that Bittle was born into the business. His grandfather, was the legendary New York Yankee outfielder Charlie Keller. Bittle is among three members of the third generation of the Keller family to become involved in harness racing and the only one to become a trainer.

Harness racing has been the biggest part of your life for as long as you have been among the working. Has it always been so?

“Well, yes and no. I recall the first thing I wanted to be was a cowboy working on a ranch out west and maybe having my own place. I always preferred working with the horses over the farm work, though. My grandparents Charles E Keller junior and Martha had three children, Charlie III, Donald and my mom Jeanie. Charlie’s son Charles IV, known as Chaz has always preferred farm work and is somewhat of a homebody. My brother Dan has always loved every aspect of harness racing, breeding, raising the horses and following them. Then there was me. Although I was raised on the farm, I always preferred working with the horses to doing the jobs on the farm. That certainly did not mean that I was spared any of the work on the farm. No way, especially when Charlie Keller was the farm owner and your boss.”

Tell us about your grandfather.

“My grandad was a great man. He was tough, but exceptionally fair. He expected his sons and grandchildren to work hard, but he would expect himself to work just as hard, if not harder. We would all work together, making hay, picking rocks from the fields, building and painting fence, all the work that everybody on a working farm would be expected to do. Then there were the horses. Grandad loved and took great pride in raising his yearling crop and occasionally racing a filly or more. It was something inherited by his children and grandchildren.”

How did your transgression from picking up rocks in the field evolve to becoming a Grand Circuit trainer?

“I loved working with the horses — doing the farm work, notsomuch. My first job requiring some responsibility with the horses was being involved with the yearling fillies going to the sales. I quickly learned that the horses were my preference.

“Bib Roberts was given the few horses that Yankeeland Farms put into training. I went to work for him in 1983 and you could say that I never looked back. I stayed with Bib for four summer years while I was going to college. During that time, my grandfather had a horse, Ominous Yankee, that wasn’t considered to be any good. I asked him if he would allow me to try to make “a horse” out of him. He said sure and somehow I managed to do so. We ended up selling him to Frank Conlin for $30,000 which was a huge amount of money back then, especially to a kid barely wet behind the ears. My granddad was quite pleased and rewarded me with a commission for the sale. After I graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in animal science, I went out on my own with a few head for Yankeeland Farms. I first trained exclusively for Yankeeland Farms, not because that was the plan, but rather because they were the only ones who would give me horses to train. As time went by, I would occasionally get an outside horse or two.

“I met Lon Frocione one of the most unsung heroes of the sport. He was a truly wonderful and exceptionally loyal man. From the first time I met Lon, there was never a time when he didn’t own at least one horse in my stable until his passing.”

We just lost your uncle Charlie one of the most beloved people ever in our sport.

“Charlie led a wonderful and full life. There is no one, at least no one that I’ve ever known, who has anything but kind words to say about him. Initially, his brother Donald was more involved with the farm than was Charlie. We didn’t see all that much of Charlie. Charlie was working for a living. He had established a top level accounting firm. He always maintained his interest in harness racing though — specifically in Yankeeland Farms and the horses produced by the Farms. There was nobody prouder than Charlie when a “Yankee” won a major event. He took a great interest in the Farms and the family. His health had not been the best in the last several years, but he would still say in touch, especially around sales time when he would come up with the list of yearlings that he thought that Chaz, Dan and me should look at with a view towards adding to our racing stable and quickly growing broodmare band.

“He was always involved in the industry and was a great asset to the USTA, the Hambletonian Society and the Harness Racing Museum among the sport’s important organizations he served with great honor.”

What about the decision to disperse the farm in 2006? I’m certain it wasn’t one reached easily.

“It certainly wasn’t. In addition to the mares, we were dispersing a great part of our lives and the blood, sweat and tears that we went through establishing and building one of the greatest group of broodmares in the history of the sport. In one word it was sad. However, the land had grown too valuable. Frederick had become a small metropolis. It was a bedroom community not too far from Washington, DC. It was time to cash in our chips.

“But getting horses out of our blood was nowhere near as easy as we thought it might be. Since the dispersal, we have regularly bought fillies. Fillies become mares. The quality of the fillies we acquired led to them becoming broodmares. We now have 13 broodmares, which together with their yearlings, weanlings and sucklings are boarded at Hanover Shoe Farms. It’s a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that all 13 of the mares are in foal. The bad news is that we will have 13 more mouths to feed. I would expect and hope that for as long as harness racing is in existence there will always be one or more Keller descendants active in it.”

Brett Bittle’s stable today could be described as small and mighty.

“I only have five head in training now. But horse for horse, they are pretty decent. Enough to give me enough to do to keep me out of trouble. We’ve got Darlene Hanover, the Doherty Memorial (and inaugural Delmonica Hanover) winner, Sweet Omen a decent 2-year-old filly, Skyy, a nice 3-year-old filly who will become a broodmare next year, Current Yankee, a homebred 2-year-old pacing colt and Onecrookedleg, a very good 2-year-old pacing filly who will be heard from.

Onecrookedleg? Surely that wasn’t her given name?

“No it wasn’t. But she sure as heck has one — her front left. She shows how much of a puzzle this business can be. We bought two Sweet Lou fillies last year Sweet Omen for $185,000 and Onecrookedleg for $9,000. Sweet Omen to this point is okay, but just that. Onecrookedleg is very good now and could in my opinion become outstanding. Dan and I were at Kentuckiana Farms looking at yearlings last year. They brought out this gorgeous, stout Sweet Lou filly. ‘Wow!’ I thought to myself. ‘She’s gorgeous!’ Then I looked down. Her left front was significantly offset, not just a little, but a lot. I thought to myself, there have been a lot of good fillies, especially pacing fillies who were offset, maybe not this bad, but offset nonetheless. I might gamble on her if she sells reasonably, say for less than $15,000. I ended up getting her for $9,000. At this point, she is as good a pacing filly as I have ever been around.”

Which is you favorite all time horse?

“That would have to be Windylane Hanover. It’s not often that you buy a yearling filly for a reasonable price ($50,000), see her develop into a Hambletonian Oaks winner and earn over a million dollars. Then you sell her for half-a-million dollars and get to train one of her foals, Muscle Diamond, who earns $834,424 for your family.”

I’m glad to hear that you have finally given up smoking.

“It was not easy. That was eight months and 15 pounds ago.”

Who is the best horseman you have ever been around?

“Almost certainly it has to be Chuck Sylvester. I got perhaps the greatest compliment that I’ve ever received this past winter when Chuck got in touch with me and asked me to send him some plastic shoes that I had some luck with. That would be like Babe Ruth asking you how to hit a baseball. I count myself fortunate to be a member of Chuck’s close circle. He is a good friend who has always treated me well.”

How about drivers?

“There are so many great ones out there, maybe more than ever. They are deserving of praise, but in my opinion too much is thrown their way and not enough to the true heroes, the horses. The races are won by the horses, not the drivers. I do value the feedback that some of the drivers can give me regarding the horses and their soundness while racing.”

How has the COVID-19 epidemic affected you?

“I guess not too much different than most. It certainly has been an inconvenience, but we’ve been able to live with it. All of my family except me has had it. Thankfully, no one has had it to the extent that they had to be hospitalized. I’ve been accused of being the devil who transmitted it to all of them.”

What about the future for Brett Bittle?

“I try to look only one year ahead. It’s hard to believe, but yearling time is here. With so many top and promising stallions out there, one would think that it would be easier to pick some reasonably priced good horses. However, it seems to me that it has become more difficult, especially with trotters. It seems that most of the powerful stables focus on the same horses. At the very top, yearlings tend to be very expensive. But there are bargains to be found. All it takes is some hard work and perhaps more importantly some good luck. Darlene Hanover was the only trotting filly in my stable and I was fortunate enough to win the Doherty Memorial with her.”

The name Charles Ernest Keller is a very esteemed one in harness racing. There is of course your grandad, your uncle and your cousin Chaz. Reading the obituary of Charlie, I see that Chaz’s son and grandson are respectively Charles E Keller the fifth and sixth.

“Here’s hoping that the great legacy of the Kellers and the great sport in which they have been involved will continue for many generations to come.”

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