by Murray Brown
People might think of Robert LeBlanc as a relative newcomer to harness racing. In fact, he has had a lifetime interest and involvement in horse racing, both harness and thoroughbreds for all but 10 of his 63 years on the planet. When Robert was about 10 years old, his grandfather owned two cheap claimers one a standardbred, the other a thoroughbred. “They weren’t very good,” he says, “but I loved going to Greenwood Raceway in my hometown Toronto with my grandfather to see them race. I quickly became interested in the challenge of betting on the horses. I started doing so when I was about 10 years old and I still love to bet and always make a wager on every horse in which I have an interest.”
He made a vow to himself that when and if he was in a position to own horses he would become involved in owning them.
He was born and raised in Toronto, however his employment with IBM resulted in his being moved to New York City where he has lived for much of his adult life. He retired in 2017 after 37 years working for IBM. It was at that time that he decided to take the plunge of obtaining significant ownership in the sport to which he had a great interest. It has been an enjoyable and somewhat profitable journey in harness racing since then.
Although he is now retired, he is very involved with his journey through a life that he has and continues to enjoy.
It was prior to the beginning of the baby race schedule at The Meadowlands when this scribe spoke with him.
Q: Robert, after living in Austin which is often regarded as one of the great and growing cities in the United States, you picked up and moved to Gotham – New York City. Any particular reasons?
“I suppose it’s because it’s the only New York City. There are many who regard New York as the center of our universe. On several counts, I would suppose that it might be. Austin was great. My wife Cathy and I lived there for five years. It has a lot that New York does, but not everything. New York is centrally located. It has great theatre, restaurants, sports, museums — you name it. Whatever it may be, it’s there or close by, including our daughter. I’m near all sorts of golf courses. Golf is a game to which I suppose I am addicted. I generally play three and sometimes even four times a week. New York is a city from which so much of life flows. Of course, the most important racetrack in North America, The Meadowlands, is just across the river from where we live. My two chief trainers Tony Alagna and Nancy Takter are stabled nearby. I get to see them and my horses as I please. I will get to see most of my babies begin their first lessons on Saturday mornings during Breakfast with the Babies.”
Q: You are one of likely relatively few owners in this sport who has hit the ground running insofar as almost immediately doing well in the sport. How did this come about?
“I think I need to correct you a little. It might seem that I’ve done well from the beginning, but that has not entirely been the case. The beginning of any significant success I’ve enjoyed began with my retirement in 2017. My first venture in the sport was in 2007 when my brother Dan and I bought a Western Terror filly in Harrisburg. She wasn’t very good and we quickly sold her. The next year I bought into a Rocknroll Hanover filly with Jason Libby, Cool Jazz, who was okay. We got a big thrill when she finished second in the Bluegrass at The Red Mile. John Campbell drove her in that race and that was another thrill.”
Q: It is 2017. You’ve retired after 37 years at IBM. You had a lot more time on your hands. What happened then?
“I’d always wanted to become seriously involved in harness racing. What better time than then? I had retired. I had some time on my hands. I love golf, but there is a limited amount of time one can spend on the golf course. I’m a big believer in analytics. The question was if I could put that belief to use in harness racing. One could say that I got lucky. To some extent I certainly did. I am also a great believer in youth. I hitched my star to a fantastic trainer Tony Alagna. I was lucky to get in with one of the best.
“My favorite time of the year is the early fall. Not only is that when a lot of the great stakes racing takes place, but it is also the time when I receive the catalogs for the two major yearling sales in Lexington and Harrisburg. It’s probably difficult to quantify how much time I put into studying those ‘bibles,’ but it is significant. I pick the yearlings that I am most interested in based on their bloodlines. I’m a great believer in pedigree. Without it you are destined to climb much higher mountains than you would encounter with having it. I make my picks. I then check to see what Tony and Nancy and my partners think of them. To a great extent, they usually coincide. I buy into several yearlings. We try to run it on a business basis. Our goal is to develop top 2- and 3-year-olds. Those that don’t reach that status are usually sold by the beginning of their 4-year-old season. Their spots in our lineup are replaced by yearlings. We had moderate success the first two years, but the best was yet to come.”
Q: What happened?
“The year was 2020. Even though I was having a pretty good season, the real fireworks erupted at The Meadowlands on Aug. 8. The Hambletonian was won by our Ramona Hill. We received a little criticism for putting a filly in against the best 3-year-old trotting colts, but Ramona proved our confidence by soundly winning the race. Shortly thereafter, I was part of two spectacular upsets in classics races. On Sept. 22, our Captain Barbossa won the Little Brown Jug. Then only two days later, Exploit won the Metro Pace at Woodbine Mohawk. What a great run that was! There are many who have been in the business all their lives who haven’t had the good fortune to win even one of those races. Here we were, winning three Classics events in less than two months.”
Q: You often make reference to your partners and how big an influence they have had in your great experiences in the sport.
“All of my horses are and have been owned by partnership groups. In addition to being involved with great people. We share in the ups and downs — hopefully more of the former than the latter. The combined knowledge of such as Tony Alagna, John Fodera, David Anderson, Myron Bell, the Crawfords, Brad Grant, Ken Jacobs and Steve Wienick is without equal in the sport. Perhaps every bit as important as their knowledge is the fact that without exception, they are all fine people who I am privileged to call my friends.”
Q: What is the makeup of the horses in training with which you have an ownership position right now?
“I presently have 15 head in training. They are made up of 10 2-year-olds — five with Tony Alagna, four with Nancy Takter and one in Canada with Jason Libby — and five 3-year-olds — four with Alagna and one with Nancy. They are fairly evenly represented with trotters, seven, and pacers, eight.”
Q: Which horse that you’ve owned would you considered to have been the best?
“Undoubtedly, that would be Ramona Hill. She was absolutely wonderful. Any time you have not only a Hambletonian winner, but one of the greatest trotting fillies ever — that would be exceptional.”
Q: What is your preference trotters or pacers?
“Any time you have a great horse it’s special. However trotters are more challenging. Having said that, I would have to say that of the two gaits, trotters have improved more than pacers. I remember way back when the Grand Circuit came to Greenwood Raceway in Toronto, I would always go. A big part of the trick then was to try to determine which of the 2-year-old trotters, especially the fillies, would not make breaks. It was sometimes the case that half the field or more would go off running. Now, especially early in the season, it can be somewhat rare that any of them make breaks. I suppose that trotting hobbles probably play a part in that happening. But I believe that the biggest factor is that the trotting gait has made such great progress. They are more natural and are more adept at staying on gait regardless of how fast they are going.”
Q: You told me that you always bet on your horses. Have you been able to make any big scores?
“Betting on horses is the biggest part of what got me interested in the sport. It is certainly the major reason for our existence. I made a bet on Exploit when he won the Metro at 36-1 odds. Just last year, I made a substantial wager on Queen Of Success when she won the Breeders Crown elimination over Niki Hill at 23-1. I also had the exacta.”
Q: What can we do to help get more people not involved in the sport to get more people in it?
“We need to get creative. We need to learn how to concentrate on getting people to wager on our product. The days when you get big crowds to the racetrack on ordinary race days are over. Most people, myself included, prefer to sit comfortably in our homes to watch and wager. Legal sports betting presents another challenge. We need to figure out a way in which we can attach ourselves to the areas, where people, especially young people are most interested in betting — areas linking lotteries and even major sporting events to our races. Our audience continues to shrink. We need to figure out ways to go with the trends rather than to try to compete against them.”
Q: What are you most looking forward to in the 2022 racing season?
“We have two 3-year-old trotters which we are hoping will be Hambletonian or Oaks horses. Fast As The Wind is a colt with Tony Alagna who we have great hopes for and Selfie Queen is a filly who was the fastest 2-year-old filly last year. She is being prepped by Nancy Takter. Next week the baby races will begin at The Meadowlands, Gaitway, Magical Acres and other venues. Some hopes will be sustained and unfortunately some dreams will be squashed. Right now they are all undefeated champions.”
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