The long and mostly great journey of Ray Schnittker
by Murray Brown
On Memorial Day of 1986, Ray Schnittker and his father Warren arrived at Roosevelt Raceway with five horses and very little money to keep them and their horses going. They did all the work themselves, so they didn’t have any payroll to worry about.
“It was a sink or swim situation for us. We had been racing on the Buffalo, Batavia Circuit and just getting by,” said Ray. The “star” of their small stable back in Buffalo had been a Tar Heel pacer by the name of Dave Hanover.
“In Western New York we were just spinning our wheels. We got by, alright, but just that. I told dad that I’d like to take a shot at the big time and he was all for it. When we first got to New York, I remember going to the paddock and I was one of, if not the youngest guy there. Today I’m one of the old farts.”
It’s been a long and mostly great journey.
Through the transition, they progressed from having a stable of overnighters, mostly claimers, then to open class horses, then to regional New York Sires Stakes horses and for the last couple of decades to horses that are capable of taking on and sometimes beating the best in the world, all the while maintaining his stable’s strong presence in New York with New York Sires Stakes horses.
Throughout the progression, Ray has also managed to dip his toe into several other areas of the great sport of harness racing.
He became involved in the politics of the sport as a director of the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New York as well as being a long-time director of the United States Trotting Association.
He is a noted breeder. He and his wife Janet own 12 broodmares and significant parts of the stallions Huntsville and So Surreal.
With regard to Huntsville, who is making huge waves with his first crop of 2-year-olds this year, Ray not only still owns a significant interest in him, but is also his breeder, and the man who raced him throughout his racing career.
So Surreal at a young age, is well established as one of the premier pacing stallions in the Empire State. In the 2019 New York Sires Stakes Finals, held at Batavia Downs, his colts and fillies swept all four finals for 2- and 3-year-old colts and fillies.
His greatest horse prior to this year was the Hambletonian winner Deweycheatumnhowe. This season, Ray trains, and together with three of his long-time and loyal owners, owns the top trotting colt King Of The North.
Let’s start with King Of The North. You certainly played a big part in his being. You trained his dam Check Me Out, sold three quarters of her to your good friend and sometime partner Steve Jones and have been the purchaser of two of her foals as yearlings. As you like to say about Jones, you are there to provide guidance to him and help him out.
“I loved Check Me Out. She was a great filly, especially as a 2-year-old. I guess I am now in the breeding business, although I wasn’t when I owned and raced her. When she was done racing, I was going to give Steve Jones first crack at buying her. Steve suggested that instead of him buying her solely that I keep a quarter and that he would buy the remaining three quarters. That’s what we did. He makes all decisions based on breeding her, raising her foals and marketing them as yearlings. All of her yearlings go to sale. They are there to be bought. Of course, if I like any of them I am free to buy them at the price that the market dictates. That’s not to say, that I’m not a seller if the price is right.”
Let’s run through the progression from the time you arrived on the New York Circuit until now.
“Initially, we were trying to just make a living racing horses. We raced our ordinary horses with some degree of success. As we did better, so did the amount we were willing to spend on racehorses. Over time, we did better. I made it a practice to study and try to emulate those that I considered to be top horsemen. The first really good horse we had was my all-time favorite Covert Action.
As far as our involvement in New York breds and buying yearlings was concerned, it was mostly due to the state of racing at Yonkers at that point in time. This was well before the slot money had kicked in at Yonkers. The purses had become threadbare. It had become extremely difficult to make money racing in overnights. The Sires Stakes were still racing for decent money. I felt that that was where I needed to be. I started buying yearlings. We did well and are still doing well racing in New York. Over time, my ambition grew, money was important, sure, but I wanted to both earn good money and be able to compete against the very best. I started diversifying into what I thought could be Grand Circuit types. I went to the major sales and visited the various breeding farms. The first truly great horse that I had was Dewey. But before him I had others such as One More Laugh, Grain of Truth, Jezzy, Make it Happen, Armbro Plato and Armbro Trick.
“I think that So Surreal was meant to be a truly great horse. If not for a serious foot injury there is no doubt that he would have proved it on the racetrack. I went to Steve Jones and asked him to stand him at his Cameo Acres Farm. Steve knows the market, especially the market for stallions, like nobody else. He felt that it was important that we price him low enough in order to give people reason to breed to him. In addition, he said, he had confidence in the horse and would breed several of his own mares to him. He said that the quality of the mares he would be getting was secondary to his getting mares — period. If he was going to be a sire, he’d become so. If not, even if he received the best mares, he wouldn’t.
Huntsville of course was another situation. I was his breeder. I trained and drove him. He was a great colt. He is a great individual, with good size and impeccable conformation. Unlike So Surreal, he was able to prove it on the racetrack. We were able to syndicate him, with many of the sports leading breeders coming in for a piece of the action. His yearlings looked the part. They sold well and his first crop has performed beyond extra well.”
The way you train your young horses is likely different than that of just about everybody else in the entire business. Would you care to expound on that?
“Teddy Wing once told me when describing what I do with my young horses: ‘You do everything wrong, yet it works.’ What I do when I get them home from the sale, I break them and go with them for about six weeks. For example, the ones I get in Harrisburg, I’ll usually get them down to 2:35 by the first of the year. Then I’ll just kick them out for close to two months. I’ll then bring them back in and train them down until they are ready to race in early June. Today’s horses are so natural, that a mile in 2:35 is almost like walking for them. People have accused me of turning them out for January and February because it’s better for me, to avoid the cold weather and not necessarily for the horses. There might even be a very slight amount of truth to that. Another benefit relates to the absence of good help. If the horses are out, you don’t need as much help. Horses are creatures of habit and the standardbred is amazingly adaptable. More often than not, they will adapt to everything and anything you throw at them.”
You appear to have done really well with Huntsville and So Surreal. On the other hand, Dewey has proven to be somewhat of a disappointment.
“I suppose that goes with the territory when dealing with stallions. A small number will make it on a high level. Most will not. I thought Dewey couldn’t miss. Not only did I think he couldn’t miss, but I put my money where my mouth is. I haven’t done the numbers and I don’t really want to. But I’d guess that I lost a good deal of the money I made with him in buying his yearlings. I do think though that he would have made a better showing if we had stood him in New York where he likely would have been bred to mares by Conway Hall and Credit Winner. This might have helped more in streamlining his individuals and maybe endowing them with more quick speed. We will never know.”
It appears that you’ve cut down significantly on the number of horses that you train and especially on your number of drives.
“Like I said above, I’m an old fart. I’m 63. I don’t really want to do the amount of work, nor can I do it as well as I used to be able. I’m thankful that I’m wise enough to realize and acknowledge it. I think I can still train a horse as well as anybody. I just don’t want to train as many. As far as my driving is concerned. I still drive some, but not near as much as I used to. I have a great relationship with Mark MacDonald who drives most of my stakes horses. He also helps me train somewhat, which I believe might give me a bit of an edge. He knows the horses he sits behind. It’s also a benefit as far as loyalties are concerned. I don’t have to go hunting for drivers, and I know I am number one on his list.”
Another thing that’s different in the Schnittker operation is that your veterinarian is also your wife.
“Yes indeed. She is also a darn good one — both veterinarian and wife. I think that also gives me a bit of an edge. She is around. She knows the horses as well as anybody. She is also endowed by a trait that not all vets possess — common sense. I’ve found that, generally speaking, good horses don’t need a whole lot of vet work done with them.”
One of your pet peeves is the need to qualify horses within a set time period.
“I wouldn’t want to ban qualifiers, but, generally speaking, they are a waste of time and money. I certainly see the need for baby races as a teaching tool. The same goes with most qualifiers for young horses. But I believe that the need to qualify should be the choice of the horse’s connections, not on some arbitrary time date.”
What other problems do you see in the business?
“One of our main problems lie with the commissions and the dodos employed by them. There are beards all over the place. Yet, these people are so blind that they make Mr. Magoo look like he has an eagle eye in comparison. I think it’s much more prevalent with the overnights. That’s another reason why I’m more involved with younger horses.”
I would say that more than most trainers you have a knack of keeping owners. Some of your owners have been with you forever.
“I think that there are two main factors. Firstly, I own a piece of every horse in the stable. There has to be a degree of trust just by me having the same goals as them. I’m going to act in what I believe to be in their best interest, because I’m treating myself in the same manner. Secondly, I always tell the truth — good or bad. The worst thing that can happen as far as I am concerned is having to make a phone call telling an owner that something bad has happened to a horse that we thought highly of. There is no easy way to do it.”
Let’s talk about some of your better horses.
Deweycheatumnhowe — “He was a natural right from the start. Most of my better horses have been. We won 17 races in a row with him. I generally don’t get nervous before a race, but an exception was his Hambletonian. I kept thinking to myself, wouldn’t it be a bitch if the streak was broken in that race. Winning the Hambletonian was and will probably always be my number one thrill.”
One More Laugh — “An excellent horse. He won the Governor’s Cup at 2 and The Meadowlands Pace at 3. Not too many have done that.”
Check Me Out – ”She was 2-year-old trotting filly of her year. We won 11 in a row with her. With King Of The North looking as good as he is, she might be becoming the broodmare we hoped she would become.”
Huntsville — “A dream horse. It so gratifying to breed, train and race a great champion. Huntsville was and is one of those. It’s still early, but it looks like he might be on his way to becoming a great sire, as well.”
So Surreal — “One of the very fastest horses I ever sat behind. Destined to become better than the record book says he is. One of my greatest kicks as a breeder was when all four NYSS finals were won by his sons and daughters.”
Covert Action — “The first really excellent horse that I trained. He was the one that turned the page for me. My all-time favorite.”
Grain Of Truth — “He won 80 races and $1.6 million. Just think of those numbers — all in overnights.”
Armbro Plato — “He was a bit of a lunatic, but so is his trainer. Finished third in the Hambletonian.”
Armbro Trick — “A good trotter. He finished third in the Hambletonian.”
Make It Happen — “Somewhat of an over achiever. He earned $900K and we sold him for $900K.”
Jezzy — “The best filly ever by her sire Credit Winner. She earned over $800,000.”
Rayson Hanover — “Another one of the first group of good horses that I had. He was just a little fella. But what a warrior he was.”
What does the future hold for Ray Schnittker?
“It’s pretty good being Ray Schnittker. My work is mostly my fun, as well. I’m my own boss. I have a good stable of horses. I have a great group of owners and partners, who at the same time are also a great group of friends. In recent years I’ve found that I really enjoy being a referee for kids wrestling matches. Today and tomorrow are two of the greatest words in the English language.”
Have a question or comment for The Curmudgeon?
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