Trainer of the Year Nifty Norman on the impact of high inflation on the bottom line. Plus, a update on his exceptional trotters Venerable and Bella Bellini.
by Brett Sturman
Just like any other industry, harness racing in North America is no exception to feeling the impact of inflation and the associated sharp rise in food and energy costs.
I’ve seen firsthand the predicament that trainers have been put in by the rising costs. Between the cost of hay, personnel, and everything in between, trainers are walking a fine line between how much they can bear on their own before needing to pass the rising expenses to owners in one form or another. For example, one trainer has elected to slightly expand how they charge commissions rather than increase their daily rate. Another has found a source for specific medication at a rate lower than what their vet typically charges.
But what’s unmistakable is that the increase in costs is already starting to have an impact in an industry where most participants are operating on already extremely tight margins.
Reigning Dan Patch Trainer of the Year Nifty Norman — who is the feature of our next Twos in Training video with Heather Vitale. It debuts Monday (April 11) at 7 p.m. More info here: HarnessRacingUpdate.com/twos-in-training-2022/ — operates his stable out of New Jersey, and his costs alone to transport horses to the races illustrate the challenges.
“It’s terrible, actually,” Norman said. “I’ve had to put my rates up, and to be honest I haven’t gotten any complaints at all because I think everybody is aware of how much things have changed. For example, a bag of feed has gone up $5 in the last 12 months and the cost of diesel fuel has increased almost 100 per cent; it’s crazy. I took a horse to Yonkers last Monday and just between the fuel and tolls I was at around $240, so that gives you an idea. Owners see a bill for $300 and it may seem ridiculous, but when you factor in the driver, wear and tear on the truck; it’s very tough right now.”
Jumping from one crisis to another, the impact from inflation is far more likely to have greater impact at first on the smaller operations, just as COVID-19 did when racing was shut down two years ago. In a scenario where costs continue to increase for a prolonged or indefinite period, Norman said, “I think it could force some of the smaller people out for sure. It always does. It always hits those people the most because no matter how good the horse is, the costs are still the same.”
In addition to food and energy, another ongoing area of increased spending has been for personnel expenses as the industry remains in a shortage of caretaking help.
“Everybody in the country is short of staff,” said Norman. “And we’ve seen that you have to pay more in wages to attract people, and you just sort of get hit right now from all directions. One thing you can try to do is work with other trainers and coordinate rides to the races and so forth to try to save a buck here and there, but that’s hard too. Shipping to a place like Pocono is three hours for us, and that’s a lot of diesel you’re chewing up. Between the shortage of staff and the inflation it’s tough going. I have a big team that cares for around 60 horses but there’s a lot of aggravation right now and it really can make you feel like cutting back.”
Norman echoes prior comments made in Harness Racing Update regarding the staff shortage.
“The crazy thing is, everyone knows that the Spanish help is basically our main help right now and they’re actually very good help, they have a natural connection with the horses and are very good. You would think that with the border being the way that it is, you would think there would be a lot more people available looking for work, but I haven’t had a single person walk through the gate this year looking for a job,” Norman said.
“Overall, the immigration process has changed. We used to have a lot of Australian and New Zealand kids come over for six or 12 months or around that, same thing with Swedes or Scandinavians, but you don’t see that much either anymore. They can’t get here, or they can only come for vacation. They can’t stay and work for six or 12 months and it has really hurt too because they were high quality staff that was an asset for you and that doesn’t happen anymore.”
On the racing front, Norman heads into 2022 with much to look forward to coming off his award-winning 2021. Norman won 141 times last year from 659 starts, and stable earnings cleared $6 million. Powered by two Dan Patch award winners, trotters that both earned over $1 million last year, Norman likes what he’s seeing thus far in stars Venerable and Bella Bellini.
“I brought her back on the first of February, she was turned out down in Kentucky and she did very well,” Norman said of Venerable. “She came back in really great shape, she grew quite a bit and filled quite a bit too. I was pleased with that because towards the end of last year she lost some weight, but the break did her good and I couldn’t be happier with how she looks now and has been training well, so all good so far.”
Venerable, a filly, defeated male rivals last year in the Mohawk Million, so the natural, albeit super early question is: if Norman would consider the Hambletonian this year.
“Basically, that’s something that you think about the week of the race more or less. We’re aiming her towards the Oaks at this stage,” he said. “But, usually, you just size up the competition and see what your situation is. If it’s a situation where I had maybe two fillies in the Oaks and the colts looked a little suspect, then you might think about it. But it’s definitely not something we’re thinking about right now.”
Norman won last year’s Hambletonian Oaks with eventual and near unanimous 3-year-old trotting filly of the year Bella Bellini. Training down for her 4-year-old season, Norman said, “She looks absolutely incredible right now. And by the way, I had no clue she was going to do something like what she did last year. I didn’t expect that, and it was just unbelievable. I’ve never seen a horse do that before (between ages 2 and 3). She was just average at 2, and it just shows that she needed to mature. Because now she’s an absolute bull, she’s filled out even more and I think she’s going to be an incredible horse again this year.”