Joe Sbrocco on 50 years in the game

The Ohio-based owner had four horses in the NA Cup eliminations.

by Murray Brown

Joe Sbrocco began his involvement in harness racing in 1970. He wasn’t nearly as involved then as an owner as he is today. His father in law Bob Cole was a long time Ohio trainer. Joe became an occasional trainer/driver. He also called races at the Ohio fairs at matinee races and his wife Sandy charted them.

The money in Ohio fair racing wasn’t that good at the time. Sbrocco fiddled around mostly with lower quality horses. Thankfully, he had another job as the owner of a title company in Cleveland. The company was growing. He determined that he didn’t have enough time to spend with racing to do his company justice. In 1975, he took a respite from harness racing. As his company grew more successful, the itch for harness racing returned. He returned to the sport in 1985. In a few losing years he turned the corner and has been on an upward spiral ever since.

Today, he is the owner of 58 horses in training with 14 trainers. They are comprised of 38 2-year-olds, 19 3-year-olds and one 4-year-old. He is a 25 per cent per cent owner of all but a few.

He spoke with this scribe last Tuesday, the day of declarations for last night’s Pepsi North America Cup eliminations.

Q: You’ve risen from a part time trainer/driver to becoming one of the foremost owners in our sport. How did that happen?

“It was a combination of several factors. The chief one being associating myself with good people — both trainers and partners. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve had great success with both.”

Q: How did it all begin?

“I wanted to get involved with quality horses. I was in Kentucky in the Fall of 2010. Myron Bell, who I didn’t know well at the time, but whose knowledge of the breed was well known, bought a Cantab Hall yearling colt named Modern Family of which I was the under bidder. I asked him if I could get in for a piece of the horse. Myron asked me how much I wanted. He said he would get back to me. I bought 25 per cent. Through my association with him, I became involved with Tony Alagna who I consider to be one of the best trainers anywhere. We did well and it grew from there. Right now I have 58 horses with 14 trainers. They include four colts who raced (last night) in the eliminations’ for the Pepsi North America Cup and two trotters in the Goodtimes elim.”

Q: You have your horses in 14 different stables. Why that many?

“Firstly I believe those particular trainers are all excellent horsemen. In many, if not the majority of the cases, my partners and I go through the catalogs and videos together and pick out our choices. We then have different trainers look at them to determine if they are up to snuff. We then set a bid limit and go from there. I have the largest number of Ohio pacers with Brian Brown and a number of Ohio trotters with Chris Beaver. Most of the partners in those horses are from Ohio. I might also ask others to take a piece. Both Brian and Chris train Grand Circuit horses as well and are good at that. I have a few of my better ones with Tony Alagna, who has also become a great friend. The majority of my partners with horses under Tony’s care have had horses with him for a long time. I love and respect both Brian and Chris as well as Tony. I have had lots of success with all three. I hope and expect that will continue to happen.”

Q: Who else do you have training for you?

“I have horses with Ronnie Burke who I also consider one of the very best, Steve Carter, Robert Cleary, Noel Daley (Pebble Beach), George Ducharme, Ryan Miller, Chris Ryder, Ake Svanstedt, Nancy Takter, Linda Toscano, and Lucas Wallin. Unless I might feel strongly about where a particular horse goes, my partners generally help with that decision.”

Q: You have four entries in this Saturday’s Pepsi North America Cup eliminations. How do you think they will fare?

“Right now I just hope they all race well. They are all in good form and I believe they are ready for the next two weeks and hopefully for the rest of the season. If I had to pick one, I guess it might be Pebble Beach. They are all good, but he might be exceptional. I Did It Myway is somewhat special because in addition to owning him I bred and raised him and sold 50 per cent of him to some of my favorite partners before we gave him to Tony.”

Q: In addition to racing a good many, you have also bred and raised a few.

“I’ve owned a handful of broodmares. I’ve had some success in breeding, even though I’ve never been deeply invested in it, certainly not even approaching my involvement in racing. One of the first mares with which I was involved was Miss Pine Chip. She was one of the smoothest-going trotters I have ever seen even though her conformation was not the best. She could fly, but she hit her knees. We tried everything to get her off them, with no success. Finally, we gave up and bred her. After her first three foals I got an S.J.’s Caviar colt, named him Mr Pine Chip and gave him to Jim Arledge to train. He turned out to be a great 2-year-old, so I sold half of him. My partners convinced me give him to Trond Smedshammer for Grand Circuit racing as a 3-year-old. He won his first six races, including the fastest elimination of the Hambletonian in 1.52. He came into the race as the favorite. I brought 35 people to the clubhouse hoping to win the final. He had been somewhat under the weather that week and was not at his best that day. In retrospect, we probably should have scratched him. We probably would have if the race wasn’t the Hambletonian. Needless to say, that was a disappointing day. I also own Flymetothemoon who is the dam of I Did It Myway. I Did It Myway is her first foal. I have a 2-year-old colt by Downbytheseaside out of her named For Once Inmy Life a yearling filly by Captaintreacherous named Reachingforthemoon, followed by a suckling colt by Downbytheseaside that I named Itwasaverygoodyear.

Q: You have been very successful with the stallions Captaintreacherous and Downbytheseaside.

“That would be somewhat of an understatement. I refer to those boys as the gifts that never stop giving. They both were exceptional racehorses and earned $3,148,657(Captain) and $2,179,558 (Seaside), respectively. They each contributed a whole lot to the coffers, but that amount is relatively small compared to what they have earned and will continue to earn in the stud. After they went to stud I sold just a very small part of both The Captain and Seaside. I don’t know if I was just lucky or maybe a little smart. I suppose I could have cashed in and walked away with a huge profit. But I believed deeply in both horses and decided to ride with their success. At present, I still own about 20 per cent of each of them. The amount they have earned at stud and hopefully will continue to earn has been beyond my expectations. Both horses were successful from their beginnings and have had full books for every year that they were at stud. Captaintreacherous stands for $30,000. I believe he is the top priced pacing stallion anywhere. Downbytheseaside stands for $12,000 in North America and also shuttles to Australia. He bred 350 mares down under and 140 here this season. Just think of it — over 500 mares in just one year.”

Q: There are likely a very small number of North American owners who have as many horses as you do. How do you keep tabs on them all?

“It’s similar to just about everything in this world of ours — computers. My son Joe, Jr. is a graduate IT. He developed programs for me which enable me to follow all of my horses, especially when they begin racing. In addition, I keep in touch with my trainers and, perhaps almost as importantly, I am in touch with my partners. An added benefit of being involved with so many horses is that it has enabled me to become friends with so many great people in our ownership groups. I have made several wonderful friends who will always be my friends both in and out of harness racing.”

Q: Let’s speak about some of your other good horses aside from Captaintreacherous and Downbytheseaside.

“There have been a good many, a few that I might consider to be great or bordering on greatness. Without thinking too long about it I would say Norway But My Way, Mr Pine Chip, Propulsion, My Mvp, Artspeak, Braggart, Ma Chere Hall, Lock Down Lindy, Norvelous Hanover and Hot Rod Mindale.”

Q: What would you consider to have been your greatest thrills?

“There were quite a few, especially with Captaintreacherous — The Metro, The Meadowlands Pace, The Pepsi North America Cup and The Max Hempt Memorial at Pocono Downs. Of those, the most thrilling and certainly the most taxing was the Hempt Memorial. He had one of the toughest trips I’ve ever seen a horse get and still managed to win. Downbytheseaside had many great wins as well including the Matron, the Progress, the Hempt, and the Governor’s Cup, but the one that stood out to me was his world record win in 1.50 in the Standardbred in 2016 over the Delaware, Ohio track at 2 with Chris Page. It still boggles my mind. Imagine that! A two year old winning in 1:50 on a half-mile track.”

Q: How about disappointments?

“There were some, but thankfully not too many. We thought that Downbytheseaside was the best horse in the race, but on Jug day he wasn’t at his best and he didn’t win the race that most Buckeyes might put as number one on their wish list. Back in 2007, we had Hot Rod Mindale in the Jug. He unfortunately was parked the entire mile in both heats and got beat for second both times. The decision not to race Captaintreacherous in the Jug was perhaps disappointing, but we did what we felt was best for the horse. We had two very legitimate Hambletonian candidates in Norway But My Way in 1992 and Mr Pine Chip in 2006. Unfortunately, Norway But My Way made a break and Mr Pine Chip had been ill and just was not himself. Hopefully, someday, I will win both the Jug and Hambo.”

Q: How do you go about choosing the yearlings that you are interested in and then who gets to train them?

“As I said previously, my partners and myself confer with each other prior to selecting a trainer to look at each yearling. Occasionally, a trainer will call and ask if we want in on a horse and we will decide on that as well. It can vary. I am very, very fortunate to have some of the best trainers as well as the most knowledgeable owners in the business. They are starting with Jim and James Koehler (Country Club Acres) who have been my partners many, many years, Joe and Vinny Barbera, George Berlin, Adam Bowden, Barry Carter, Tom Dillon, Bill Donovan, John Fodera, Martha Frank, Harvey Fried, the Hatfield Stable, Craig Henderson, the Hutchisons, Purnell Jones, Don Latore, Robert Leblanc, Milt Leeman, Rich Lombardo, Bob Mondillo, Kirk Nichols, Steve Wienick, the Wingfield Brothers and Jim Winske.

Q: From what I’ve seen of your horses thus far, it appears as though this might be your best group of horses ever. Would you agree with that assessment?

“I would, but only to a degree. This is horse racing. Things can change quite quickly. What you’ve seen so far represents only one eighth of the segments in which I am involved. There are three others for 3-year-olds — pacing fillies as well as trotting colts and fillies. The same four segments are there for 2-year-olds. I have two trotting colts that I think could be Hambletonian horses: Fast As The Wind with Tony Alagna and Testing Testing with George Ducharme. Our 2-year-olds are progressing quite well. It’s now the time of year where hope springs eternal. We will soon get some idea of what we have with our 2-year-olds. Some might not live up to expectations, hopefully there will be others that exceed them. That champion might be among them. That is why we play the game.”

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