George Teague: Hardest working man in the biz

George Teague: Hardest working man in the biz

July 3, 2022

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In 2007, at the beginning of George Teague, Jr.’s greatest string of years in the business, the author visited the trainer at his stable in Harrington, DE.

by Dave Briggs

(Editor’s note: This 2007 feature on trainer George Teague, Jr. originally appeared in The Canadian Sportsman almost exactly 15 years ago. As Teague, Jr. is officially inducted into harness racing’s Living Hall of Fame tonight in Goshen, NY we thought it was a window into his work ethic and a fitting tribute to the amazing career he built.)

“Did you get a B12 shot before you came?” shouts an assistant trainer with a nicotine-thick cackle. “You’re going to need it to follow him around.” He aims a thumb in the general direction of the man whose name is stitched into rows of hanging red and black harness bags.

It is a little after 9 a.m. and trainer George Teague, Jr. has already been working for more than four hours this morning at his operation in Harrington, DE. Nothing new there. Teague starts work before 5 a.m. and is still going 12 or 13 hours later. That’s before heading off to the track to race many nights, a trip lengthened by the fact Teague’s stable, located behind Harrington Raceway, is a couple hours south of the game’s east-coast heartland.

This is, pretty much, Teague’s schedule seven days a week. He tries to take Sundays off, but admits he’s not often successful.

No regrets. No complaints. He said he loves every second of it.

“Go, go, go,” he said, widening his ever-present grin as he strolls right on by, heading for another horse to jog as the sun starts to turn up the thermostat on what will later be a tarmac sauna.

Tending to some 60 young racehorses at the training centre behind Harrington Raceway, Teague continually circles between his two barns and the training track, a cell phone pressed to his ear much of the time. He doesn’t even stop to eat lunch.

“I wish I could lose weight doing all this, but I eat so badly,” Teague said, patting his girth and explaining that he’s always eating on the run. “I don’t eat until five o’clock in the afternoon and then I eat like a hog. I try not to eat late at night and that doesn’t happen, either.”

He shrugs. Priorities, priorities.

Two days later, the 43-year-old trainer will win the second million-dollar race in his life — all in less than a year. On June 2, Teague’s 3-year-old pacing colt, Southwind Lynx, won the $1 million Art Rooney at Yonkers Raceway. Though Southwind Lynx finished fourth in his elimination for the Pepsi North America Cup at Woodbine on June 9 and failed to advance to the $1.5 million final, Teague is only a year removed from winning Canada’s biggest race with Total Truth, a colt trained by his sister, Brenda Teague.

Spend a morning with George and you’ll quickly learn his secret to success is really no secret at all. Beyond a lifelong passion for horses and a keen eye for picking out champions from moderately-priced yearlings, George Teague may just be the hardest working man in the biz. That’s saying something in a sport where workaholics are as prevalent as horse-loving dreamers.

“The hours are long. The work’s hard. I don’t downplay that part. Only people that like horses come here (to work)… You do have to work a little bit harder, I do believe that,” he said.

He leads by example. “If I want you here by 5 a.m., if I can make it, I think you should. If I tell you to be here at 5 and I’m not showing up, that’s the only reason for you to start slacking.”

Teague said he’s fortunate not to need much sleep.

There’s not enough time in the day for work, let alone his family, which includes his wife, Joy Shepard, 16-year-old son, Montrell and two stepdaughters, Shanika, 22, and Shamika, 20. The kids see him by working with him. When he’s not in school, Montrell helps in the barn. Shanika and Shamika work out of the house doing the bookkeeping for the stable.

Teague trains horses for some celebrity owners — former heavyweight boxing champion and grill king, George Foreman, Atlanta Falcons linebacker Demorrio Williams and former New York Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet — yet he operates a low-key operation built on sweat equity, not flash. He said he got his work ethic from his father, George, Sr., a harness trainer who died in 1980 at the age of 55.

“My father did a little bit of everything,” Teague said. “He was definitely more mechanically inclined. He used to do all his own shoeing, a little bit of his own vet work. He did a lot of stuff, a lot of it for the economics of it. He did a lot of different things that I don’t venture off in.”

Then again, George Teague, Sr. didn’t have a 60-horse operation, a U.S. and Canadian Horse of the Year (Rainbow Blue in 2004) and nearly $10 million in career training earnings to his credit (over $35 million as of 2022).

Coming off his best year in the business, in which he posted 101 wins, had a UTRS of .407 and his horses earned over $3.1 million (he would go on to exceed that figure in each of the next five years, topping out at over $4.7 million in 2009), Teague isn’t about to break stride and slow down now. He’s riding the momentum for all it’s worth.

Last fall, he bought some 40 yearlings, more than double the number he purchased in 2005. Add some 10 homebreds to the mix and he’s got 50 2-year-olds in the works. For the record, he loves his crop of rookies.

“This is one thing I want to pound pretty well while everything’s working right… then I don’t have to do it when I get older. The opportunity’s here, and everything’s rolling,” Teague said.

“I look at it as an opportunity. When everything is going well you get a chance, you get in a groove. I don’t want to be the one that settles down in a few years and the game passes me by.”

Teague may be as humble and genial as they come — a winner of the 2004 Good Guy Award, no less, from the United States Harness Writers Association for his accessibility to the media — but make no mistake, he’s no lightweight. He runs his show his way and does not apologize one second for it.

Much of the day, the trains rumble past like slow-rolling thunder — steel grinding and squealing on steel. The horses, which jog and train on the oval right beside the train tracks, don’t even bat an ear.

“Trains go banging all day. I think people worry about it more than horses,” Teague said. “There’s always been a lot of construction around here. So, when (the horses) leave here they’re pretty well exposed to a lot of activities and a lot of different noises. When you go somewhere else, they’re pretty comfortable wherever they go. It’s not like a lot of places where there’s peace and quiet… You won’t find too many quiet times around here.”

For a man with a barn full of stakes horses, Harrington, DE is off the path a little. Teague seldom races at Harrington Raceway. He doesn’t even qualify them here, preferring to ship them an hour-and-a-half away to Rosecroft Raceway in Maryland where the prime advantage is a five-eighths mile track as opposed to Harrington’s half-miller.

Still, Harrington is home; has been for 30 years since his parents moved the family here from Melfa, VA, a small town two hours due south. “You know what’s big down there? Chicken plants and farming. There isn’t much else down there. Really, really quiet. Real quiet,” Teague said of his birthplace.

George, Jr. was 12 when his father, a Second World War veteran, moved the family to Harrington in 1976 to race horses. They landed in a trailer park on the racetrack grounds.

A lot has changed in 30 years. Slot machines have led to a revitalization of the entire Harrington complex, which also doubles as the home of the Delaware State Fair. Teague has been one of the biggest beneficiaries. His barns are brand new. He loves the training track. His home and his 65-acre turnout farm are just around the corner.

“I love it here. You can’t compare any of the places I’ve been to here… and I’ve been a few places,” Teague said. “On top of it all, they take care of the track better than anybody. It’s second to none.”

Why would he ever leave?

The main barn has a long, narrow horse pool, but Teague almost never uses it, or the gigantic Equi-ciser inside the same barn. He prefers working his horses on the track, particularly in groups. By training in sets, Teague can personally see all his horses work. More importantly, he believes it’s good for horses’ mental game.

“Horses are creatures of packs. Jogging in sets, it keeps them happy.

“The mental part of training, to me, is more important than the physical. Everybody can jog them three miles.”

He’s quite happy to give credit to his sister, Brenda, assistant trainer Clyde Francis and the staff of 15 caretakers, but the fact George wants to personally see his horses at work is an indication this is not an operation where decisions are made by a show of hands.

“My motto is: if I haven’t seen them jog, I want to be on the track to see how they’re jogging, see how they’re moving, anyway,” Teague said. “You see things that you can maybe head off a problem. I trust everybody’s opinion, but I’d rather see it myself.”

It’s his show and George Teague likes things his way… in a nice way. He’s particularly careful about his image, not just because he’s a role model as one of the few African-American people in the business, but because it makes business sense.

“I don’t want to be anybody’s target that’s decided to be bitter that I’ve had a little success,” he said. “It’s so easy to have people sit there and point a finger at everything you’re doing wrong instead of the few things you do right. Sometimes, it’s just the nature of folks.

“I try to keep a frame of mind that got me to this point — appreciate the people that work for me and like everybody that I run across.”

He doesn’t smoke, rarely drinks and is always professional. He hopes he can lead other minorities into the business by example. “I don’t know if it helps me to stay clean, but definitely my image is everything right now. I don’t want to take any chances on spoiling any of it,” he said.

“(My race) hasn’t been an advantage and it hasn’t been a disadvantage. My barn is a mixture of white and black. It’s not a racial thing. It shouldn’t matter.”

What does matter, is being able to control his own destiny with limited outside influence. There’s a reason Teague owns 50 per cent of almost every horse in the barn. He cringes at the thought of having owners tell him how he should run his operation. So much so, that his voice rises as he thinks about trainers who get “eaten alive” by meddling owners.

“Just the fear, the threat of losing a horse is so big. I had great fun with Rainbow Blue, but I also told people if I had trained Rainbow Blue for the average person and she started to look like Rainbow Blue, Brett Pelling would have had her and they would be screaming, ‘What a wonderful job he had done.’ When a horse gets too good with a little trainer like myself, typical owners start to think, ‘Well, is he up to the job? This horse might be too good for a little guy like him.’ Owning a part of her reassured me that the fear wasn’t as nearly there. When she wasn’t always 100 per cent, I didn’t say, ‘Well, I think the guy wants me to race here. I better put her in there because she’s able to start this race.’ I had none of the fears to go with and that changes my perspective every day I walk in the barn.”

Teague is in the jog cart as he said this, making slow circles waiting for others to join him. Between the shafts is none other than Southwind Lynx, the colt that two days later will win the Art Rooney at Yonkers, the first of four million-dollar events on the calendar for 3-year-old pacers. The cart creaks and squeaks, the tires crackle through the stone dust. The ire in Teague’s voice soon drowns it all out. The owner/trainer relationship — a subject he brought up — clearly has touched a nerve.

“I limit myself on the bitching and complaining. I don’t want to hear it. I own 50 per cent. My 50 per cent on the racetrack is just as much as yours. If you don’t make anything, I’m not making anything. And I did all the work on top. I do have constant conversations with a few people that when they start taking it for granted, I start changing who I am. When things annoy me, I want out. When I walk in the barn I walk in with peace of mind. What I’m doing in the barn, if you turn it over to me, you trust what I do and I’m doing it for the better interest of every owner, as well as myself. I don’t need the extra pressure that comes with a lot of guys that train horses for a lot of folks. I hope people don’t take it the wrong way, but I couldn’t be one of those guys that sits there and is constantly criticized and there’s a threat of losing horses because the owner’s talking a better conversation up in the grandstand. He’s not in the barn all day.

“I had one guy six, seven years ago, he came in the barn and before he finished the conversation I blew my lid, ‘Why don’t we change this…’ I said, ‘Well, let me tell you about me. I need this horse like I need a hole in my head. I’m actually doing you a favour by training it because I don’t like training outside horses to start with. If you’re coming in suggesting to me what a guy told you up in the grandstand over a beer about how to rerig your horse that I’m training for you, I’ll loan you a lead shank to walk this horse out of this barn right now, because I don’t need it.’ I don’t listen to it. I have zero tolerance for it. Zero. If I’m the trainer, I’m the trainer. I don’t play second fiddle to people up in the grandstand telling me how to rig horses.”

With that, he turns and heads for the track. In George Teague’s world there’s no substitute for experience and hard work.

“If you don’t earn it, you’re not going to get it,” he said. “That’s one thing I found out a long, long time ago. I want to work long hours. I want to do it a little differently. I don’t want to do everything in traditional ways. I want to make my way in a different way and create different ideas with every year that comes along.

“I see a lot of people get left behind the gate because they don’t change with the times and I don’t want to be that one for the next few years to say that I’m not subject to change. If a better idea comes along, guess who is going to be one of the first ones to try it? I don’t want to be one of those guys that had that one-hit wonder and they say, ‘What happened to him? Wasn’t that the guy that trained Rainbow Blue?’”

Fear of failure can be a major motivator. So he keeps moving, even though he should stop for a second to have a decent meal. He keeps moving, even though he said he has no personal life. He keeps moving, even though diabetes claimed his father at a relatively young age, long before George, Sr. saw his son have any big success in the business… or maybe, that’s why George, Jr. keeps moving. Maybe he’s trying to squeeze the most out of every hour.

More likely it goes back to that old adage that those that stand still get left behind. George Teague, Jr. has no intention of being left behind.

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