Going in depth with Nifty Norman
by Murray Brown
Richard “Nifty” Norman, in many people’s minds, is a leading candidate for the 2021 North American Trainer of the Year.
Let’s begin at the obvious and to some degree at the beginning, how did Richard Norman become Nifty?
“My family back home in New Zealand were sheep and cattle ranchers. I left school at the age of 15 to follow in their tracks. I went to work for a large sheep ranch in Ashburton. The boss asked me to round up some sheep. Eager to impress, I was in big hurry and tripped over myself and ended up down on the other side of a fence surrounded by sheep and in a pile of sheep excrement. ‘Now that was nifty,’ the boss said. ‘From that point on, I was Nifty.’”
How did that inauspicious beginning culminate in a lifetime with the horses?
“My family always had a horse or two around and I was familiar with them, but certainly not involved to any great extent. After deciding that a life with sheep wasn’t my destiny, I went to work on a fishing boat for three years. I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing either.
“At that point I was pretty groundless. The selling of Down Under horses to America, most specifically to California, had become fairly significant. I had become involved with selling some of them. When they shipped, there was the need to have somebody accompany them on their flight. Pretty much on a whim, I decided to go with one of the flights. It never crossed my mind that I would be doing so for any great length of time, or that it would lead to my life’s pursuit. I thought that it might be a good experience and a chance to see America.”
What happened next?
“I kind of liked it here, especially in California. I became friends with a fellow Kiwi by the name of Lloyd Higgins and roomed with him. Lloyd was working for Ross Croghan who had a dominant stable in California at the time. Ross offered me a job and I went to work for him.”
You first became known here through your affiliation with Brett Pelling. How did that association come about?
“Ross had a large stable at Los Alamitos. At the end of the barn, Brett had two or three horses which he was training for his own account. Eventually, Brett ran out of horsepower and came to work for Ross as well. We worked together and became friends. We were just working blokes who were quite happy with what we were doing. There was an infamous fight between the owner of Los Alamitos and the California Horsemans Association. They went to court. The horsemen won the battle with the judge ruling in their favor. Unfortunately, they ended up losing the war, because the Los Alamitos ownership decided to close the track to harness racing. Ross saw the handwriting on the wall and told Brett and I that harness racing as we knew it in California was finished. He advised us to look east. We started importing Down Under horses. The first year we took 25 head to Pompano and within a short period of time we had sold them all. We did the same thing the next year with another 25 and quickly sold all of them. Once again, Ross offered us some sage advice. He told us, we were in effect wasting our time. We should set up business where the real money and action were — in the Northeast and more specifically at The Meadowlands.”
“We took his advice and moved to New Jersey. I won’t say that success was instantaneous, but it came fairly quick. We started with just a few head, but within a fairly short period of time we were sent quite a few horses from horsemen in California who were unable to make a decent go of it out there due to the limited racing opportunities. We raced some, sold many and the success just blossomed. In what seemed like no time, Brett Pelling became the leading trainer at The Meadowlands.”
Tell us about your experience and relationship with Brett Pelling.
“It was Brett’s stable and Brett always made all the important decisions. But I always considered myself to be an integral part of the operation. I was much more than just an employee. I’m sure that Brett would agree with that assessment. Saying that, I will say that Brett is the person from who I learned the most and I will say am still learning from in all of my years in harness racing. There may be a few comparable horse trainers in this world, but if there are any better than Brett Pelling, I don’t know them. There are certainly none wiser, nor smarter. We are still good mates and our wives are best of friends.”
You were with Brett for 20 years. Sometime during that period you left and went to work in Italy.
“At the time, Lou Guida had a good sized operation in Italy. He offered me a job working with his horses over there. I thought to myself ‘Why not?’ It was an experience. I was like a kid being thrown into a swimming pool without knowing how to swim. I had never before been to Europe, let alone Italy, a country where English wasn’t the language spoken. I spoke no Italian. I had very limited knowledge of trotters and, of course, there were no pacers over there. Despite those impediments, it was a great experience. I was there for 13 months. In that time frame, I probably learned more about horses in general and of course trotters in particular than in any comparable period in my career. It led to my love of the trotter. I love a good horse. But a good trotter is extra special.”
You’ve been here in America for quite some time. Have you ever felt the desire to go back home to New Zealand?
“I’ve not only felt it, I’ve done it a couple of times. Life is beautiful in New Zealand and Australia and they are two fantastic countries. However, if you’ve lived and raced here, you will invariably find the pace of life too slow and the competitive nature of racing here more appealing. I’m not the only one who has experienced it. So have Brett Pelling, Chris Ryder, Ross Croghan and Noel Daley. We’ve all tried and all of us have come back to North America.”
Pelling, Norman, Ryder, Daley, Croghan and some others. I’ll leave the drivers for later. How is it that from a relatively small number, so many of you guys have done so well over here? Are you better horsemen?
“That’s not necessarily so, although in the case of Brett, it might very well be. I think the main reason and one for which I will undoubtedly take a lot of criticism is the simplest one. Generally speaking, we work harder! I think that also applies to the successful European trainers here. It’s not because we basically have that as part of our DNA as opposed to our North American brethren. It’s that we have no other choice. Whereas in most cases, the North American folks do. We are here for one purpose — to train and race horses. We had no other options. Its sink or swim. If we fail at doing what we are here to do, we either languish in mediocrity or go back home with our collective tails between our legs. So we work. That’s not to say that once we’ve achieved some degree of success, we won’t to perhaps a limited degree avail ourselves of the fruits of our success. We will and do. But I’ve found that with most people, once they’ve developed habits, whether they be good or bad ones, they rarely change.”
Let’s talk about the Down Under drivers. The coming of Dexter Dunn and Andy and Todd McCarthy has been somewhat amazing. Are Down Under drivers generally that good?
“Most definitely not! It’s amazingly coincidental that all three of these guys happened to come around in a somewhat similar time frame. There have been several others who have tried here and failed or certainly not excelled as these guys have. None of the others have come close to achieving what these guys have done, especially in such a short period of time. I believe it’s quite fortuitous that we have them here, not only because they are great drivers, which indeed they are, but also because all three of them are very good guys and a credit to the sport. Also, their arrival comes at a time when our best — guys like Tim Tetrick, Yannick Gingras, Dave Miller, Brian Sears and Dave Palone among others, although not old, are not near as young as they once were. That’s not to say that there is not a bunch of good young talent throughout North America, but like that song about New York (in our case the Grand Circuit) until you’ve done it here, you haven’t done it anywhere.”
How about drivers in general. Who do you prefer. Do you learn about your horses from them?
“My favorite is Dave Miller. Not only is he a great driver, but he is also my best friend. Timmy, Yannick and to my mind, especially when the big money is down, Brian Sears, are extra special. I can’t explain why Brian is not used on big horses more often than he is. Dexter is a revelation. If all goes well with him, he could end up being the best ever. In terms of getting advice or input from them, I’ll listen to anything said to me and digest it. However I think that my eyes and being around my horses on a daily basis will tell me more than a driver will.”
Returning to Brett, were you surprised when he decided to leave to return to Down Under? How did that leave you?
“I wasn’t at all surprised. I knew that he had been thinking of doing that for some time. I think it might have been a question of having achieved most of what there was to do in his chosen profession here and some dissatisfaction with the way life in our country was going. You’d have to speak with him to get a better answer. I did however tell him that based upon my experience, that he would be back. He couldn’t have left me in better shape. He urged most of the owners in the stable to stay with me. Most of them, especially Dave McDuffee and Mel Hartman, did so. Of course, with their backing we were lucky enough to proceed in the positive direction that we have gone during the previous time. The one change and I don’t believe that it was necessarily a planned one, rather than one that evolved was the emphasis on trotters.”
Aside from obviously my lack of talent in that direction, I’ve always felt that I could never be a horse trainer because of the ups and downs associated with the job. How do you manage it?
“It’s not easy. Fortunately, in recent years there have been more ups than downs. Yet in terms of good and bad, the bad are much worse than the good happenings are good. Last Friday’s break by Venerable in the Breeders Crown elimination, might have been the biggest heartbreak in all my years in the sport. So much was riding on that race including the possibility of becoming Horse of the Year if she went on to win the Crown. It’s only natural that you question yourself after something like that happens. Did I have \ her properly prepped for the race? Did I make an error in not sending her to Lexington? Should I have trained her tougher in order to take some of the edge off of her? Of course, all of those thoughts are just wasted effort, because there is nothing that can change the past. It’s important, but certainly not easy, that we look ahead and not behind.”
How many head do you have in training?
“Right now, just about 50. The majority of them are 2- and 3-year-olds. That might be somewhat of a mistake though. It is important economically that you have some racehorses in the stable. They are important when the younger horses aren’t racing. It can be pretty difficult to run a stable with no purse money coming in. I like a good horse regardless of its age, but I now definitely have a preference for the challenge of developing youngsters and hopefully seeing them become top stakes horses. I know that I sound like an elitist, which I hope that I certainly am not, but racing a stable of just overnight horses can become monotonous.”
Let’s talk about some of the better horses with which you have been associated.
Bee A Magician – “She is my all-time favorite. I know this might sound crazy to some. But I knew or at least sensed that she was something special the very first time I laid my eyes on her. I can still visualize it today. I pulled into White Birch Farm. Steve Williams was showing this filly to Bernie Noren. I looked at her and said to myself, ‘This is the One.’ Steve asked me if he could show her to me. I responded, ‘I’ve seen enough.’ That doesn’t mean that she fulfilled my expectations from the get go. She was one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever had in all my years of training horses. I had trained her mom, she was a real bitch. So was Bee A Magician at first. Not only couldn’t we get her to train well. We couldn’t get her to train at all. We couldn’t get her to go on the racetrack. She would do everything in her power to avoid it including striking, kicking or even laying down on the ground. Eventually we would get her to go, but only with a horse in front of her, one behind and one alongside her. Once she learned, she was fine, although never what I would call a sweetheart in terms of disposition.”
Venerable – “The best 2-year-old trotting filly that I or most anybody has ever had or seen. She is just a machine. I still don’t know what made her make that break last Friday. She was a little grabby warming up and appeared to be maybe a little that way in the race. Maybe I should have trained her a little harder before the race to take some of the edge off. I wish I knew for sure what caused her to do it. But that is racing, I guess. We have no choice but to put that race behind us and go forward.”
Bella Bellini – “Maybe the biggest mystery horse in all my years of training horses. She was, not quite, but pretty close to being a terrible 2-year-old. She did show some speed and that was probably the only good trait that she showed. She did everything else, poorly or not at all. She couldn’t even get around a great track like The Red Mile without doing something wrong. If anybody but Dave McDuffee owned her, I would have suggested that she not be brought back to race at 3. I’m not sure that I didn’t do that anyway. But Dave bred the filly and that family is so very close to his heart that he wanted to give her a try and see if another year would add to her maturity . We did. She is now a different horse. She may not be of the class that Bee A Magician was, but neither are too many horses. I’m fairly confident that she is the best 3-year-old trotting filly out there.”
Western Ideal – “Just a truly wonderful horse. We got him from Blair Burgess after a masterful prep job by him in his 4-year-old season. Most people know his story. He was just getting good at 2 when he nearly severed a tendon in a race at The Red Mile. If he hadn’t been in Lexington with so many great veterinarians and facilities around, he might not have even been saved. He spent his 3-year-old year in rehab at Brittany Farms. He was then prepped for his 4-year-old season by Blair. George Segal and his racing manager Myron Bell then sent him to Brett and me to race at 5. What a warrior he was. His epic battles with Dragon Again that year were races of legend. He won more of them than he lost. He was Older Pacer of the Year. He also became a great sire.”
Rocknroll Hanover – “Another truly great horse. Undoubtedly the greatest pacer that Brett had while I was part of the operation. I think it was kismet that after having Western Ideal and playing a part in his success, we were blessed to have his greatest son from his very first crop. It was a shame and a great loss to the breed that he passed at such a young age.”
Poof She’s Gone – “She was a gorgeous yearling and we paid $170,000 for her as a yearling. That was a very big number back then. Unlike Bee A Magician and Bella Bellini, she was perfect from the very beginning and remained so all her life. She rewarded us by becoming only the second 2-year-old filly to win over a million dollars.”
Amigo Volo – “One of the best bargains we ever had in the stable. He brought $42,000 as a yearling. I had his full brother Reign of Honor who cost twice as much. I told the Pinskes who bought him that Amigo Volo was a better looking colt.”
How about the horses you’ve seen but were not a part of?
“The best trotter by far would have to be Muscle Hill. He had a few gears that he never even got to use. There’s no telling how great he might have been if he had come back to race at four and perhaps beyond. It might be a little closer with pacers. My pick there would have to be Somebeachsomewhere.”
Who is the best horseman you’ve ever known?
“Let’s put Brett Pelling aside. There would be an obvious prejudice there. If I had to pick one, I would say Ake Svanstedt. He does it all and does it all well. He develops, trains, drives and manages a large stable most of whose members race and race well.”
You’ve got a pretty special and loyal group of owners. That isn’t always the case in this business.
“That is very true. I consider myself especially blessed in that area. Dave McDuffee and Mel Hartman have been with me forever — through thick and thin, thankfully more of the former than the latter. There are somewhere in the area of 30 people who own horses or parts of horses in the stable. With the exception perhaps of Dave, my contact with most of my owners is somewhat limited. I’m admittedly not a good communicator. That is almost certainly my biggest fault. If you are an owner in my stable and you get a call from me, then you can be assured that I am not the bearer of good news. I consider myself to be a hard worker who trudges along doing the best that I can. That is not to say that if an owner calls or contacts me, I won’t get back to him. I will always respond.”
You have 21 yearlings now, where do you see yourself after Harrisburg?
“If I were guessing, I’d say somewhere in the area of 30, maybe a few more. Of the 21 I have now, at least half of them are homebreds. That’s something that has changed. At least it has for me. It used to be that almost all the yearlings I started out with were bought at the sales. Going into the sales, you never know what can come about. That’s why I think it is very important to be there and to have looked at as many yearlings as possible. Many is the time I’ve been asked at a sale about a particular horse by someone who was not at the time one of my owners. Then after that person bought it to have been handed the ticket and asked to put the horse into training. That’s one of the many reasons why I believe it’s important for a trainer to be visible. If you aren’t around, chances are you will be forgotten.”
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
“Hopefully somewhere near where I am now. It’s far too late in my life to change careers. I hope to be doing the same and hopefully with comparable results to what they have been in recent years. One thing I’ve learned in this business is that you don’t retire, at least not often willingly. You get retired! You either run out of horses, or owners, usually a combination of both.”
Some make you a favorite for Trainer of the Year. You have my vote for sure. What do you think of that?
“I never gave it any thought until after Venerable won the Million Dollar Trot at Mohawk when I was asked the question. The answer, of course, would be that it would be great if it happened. I certainly would be honored and humbled. But if by some chance it did occur, I’d get greedy and look for a daily double and include Dave McDuffee as Owner of the Year. He would deserve to be honored in that way more than I would.”
If you could win one race that has thus far eluded you, what would it be?
“For sure The Hambletonian. I have a distinct preference for trotters. I’ve also been around when we won the Meadowlands Pace and the Little Brown Jug. There are some who might say the Elitloppet or the Prix d’Amerique. But for me the Hambletonian is the most important race in the world.”
Your soul mate and partner in life since 1990 is your wife Robyn.
“She is a huge part of the operation. She is a devoted horse person and works hand in hand with the stable. I first met her at Yonkers Raceway in 1989 when she was working for Tony Strolla. We got married in 1990. As the saying goes, we have since lived happily (mostly) ever after.”
On to COVID-19. How has it affected you and your operation?
“I’m certain that I was one of the first to have it. That was before it was generally known to even exist. In February of 2020 I became deathly ill, sicker than any time I’ve ever been. I exhibited all the symptoms of the disease. For three days, I couldn’t even get to the stable. That was unheard of for me. My entire staff also got it, but that was well before knowledge of its existence became widespread. It went through us all, thankfully without any lingering aftereffects. Other than that, we experienced all the limits presented by it, but we probably haven’t suffered any more and probably less than most involved in the sport.”
Have a question or comment for The Curmudgeon?
Reach him by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.