Joe Pavia on the transition from driver to trainer

Joe Pavia on the transition from driver to trainer

July 3, 2022

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by Murray Brown

Joe Pavia began driving harness horses professionally 42 years ago. He ceased doing so on doctor’s orders after being in a succession of wrecks that resulted in him accumulating five different concussions.

“Thank goodness I don’t remember the terrible wreck at The Meadowlands which began the accumulation of five concussions. The thought of It frightens me so much that I’ve been reluctant to even watch the replay of it. Through my career I’ve had five concussions and always managed to get back up. After a while, I had no choice. I was literally between life and death. I was out of action. I was forced to redo my career. I had always trained horses, but training them was secondary to driving. I considered myself to be a decent driver — not a John Campbell, Bill O’Donnell or Herve Filion. But I felt that I could hold my own just about everywhere. Don’t get me wrong I wouldn’t place myself with the Hall of Fame guys, but on the other hand, if I had the horsepower, I think I wouldn’t embarrass myself driving against just about anybody. That all ceased on June 27, 2016 at Pocono Downs.”

Q: That had to be extremely difficult. You had been driving competitively for 36 years. Now, not only was your income essentially cut in half, but your way of life was significantly impacted.

“It wasn’t easy, of course, but on the other hand it wasn’t unexpected. I had promised my wife Dawn and son Michael that the next accident I’d be in would certainly be the last one. I had watched several successful drivers during my career end up close to being penniless. I promised myself that would not happen to me. I watched my money and always put some away for the proverbial rainy day. I had made some real estate profits in selling homes. My wife has always been very supportive. She had cared for me the nine months of rehab after my most serious accident. I knew she wasn’t keen on me going back to drive, especially since the neurologist had said that I should never drive again. Of course, losing almost half of one’s income would create a negative effect, but not near as impactful it could have been if I hadn’t taken good care of my finances. Although I didn’t have a great many horses, I had a few good ones. Perhaps most importantly I had a great nucleus of owners. They were not only clients of mine but they were also loyal friends who stood behind me in good times and some that maybe weren’t that good. One of them is Steve Held a man I consider to be the greatest human being I’ve ever known. He has been almost like a pseudo father to me. I’ve had horses for him for 25 years. We speak just about every day.”

Q: You weren’t born into the sport as many are. How did your life in harness racing evolve?

“My dad used to supply Vernon Downs with bread, pizza dough and other bakery products. I would hitch along in his truck while he made his deliveries. We’d often just hang out watching the horses after the bread had been delivered. I met Tony Mondi. He allowed me to spend time at his stable. I started jogging horses. I got my first job working for Bob McNulty at Vernon. He was a tough old bird. He expected a lot from those working for him and he received that — otherwise you were gone. I remember him asking me, ‘What is the difference between doing a good job and a poor one?’ His answer was, ‘Ten seconds.’ One day when the work was done, he asked me if I knew how to tar paper a roof. When I told him I didn’t, he said that I was going to learn. That afternoon the roof was done I got a job with Tony Mondi. Then I was given three horses to train and drive. They looked terrible on paper and their lines suggested that they were just that. I convinced their owner Gino Testa to turn them out for a month to try to freshen them up. We did that. After they came back, they won 35 races that summer. A local man named Joe D’Amato who owned 15 horses gave me my first big break in training a big stable. We ended up doing very well with them. The turning point of my career was meeting Steve Held. I’ve had his horses for 25 years now. He is as kind, generous and as loyal a person as has ever walked this earth.”

Q: What is the best horse with which you’ve been associated?

“In terms of a horse which I’ve had in my stable from a yearling on, that would have to be Steelhead Hanover. He was as honest a horse as you could possibly find. He earned $577,450 and took a record of 1.48.3f for us. I won the Mistletoe Shalee with A filly Named Dolce. I won a heat of the Little Brown Jug behind Easy Goer. I also drove Falcon Seelster to his first win as a 3-year-old at Pompano at odds of around 40-1. His trainer was so happy and so excited that he hugged and picked me up in the winner’s circle.”

Q: Which is the best horse that you’ve ever seen?

“That would have to be Niatross. I think that there is no telling how great he would have been today, with no hubrails, the bikes made for speed, the fast tracks and the incredible drivers out there. I strongly believe that it is unfair to compare horses from one generation against others. Having said that, I also believe that there are exceptions — horses that are trans generational. Niatross was certainly one of them.”

Q: Speaking of drivers, please give me the five best that you’ve seen.

“1. John Campbell. What can you say. He holds most of the records. A true professional. He is a great driver and has now become a great administrator.

“2. Brian Sears. In terms of talent, maybe the one who had the most. He has a great perspective on life. He is able to compartmentalize all the aspects. He is a horse’s best friend. No driver that I’ve ever known took better care of a horse, especially a young one.

“3. Walter Case. Raw speed. He could make horses fly. It was almost as though when he sat behind one for the first time that horse would accelerate faster than it ever would or could with any other driver.

“4. Herve Filion. He was half horse, maybe three quarters. He had a remarkable touch with horses. They could do things for him that no others could do.

“5. Tie – Ronnie Pierce. Scary good. Maybe the greatest intuitive driver I’ve ever seen.

“5. Tie – Tim Tetrick. He does everything well. Very hard to get by in the stretch.

“5. Tie – Bill O’Donnell. For a given period of time, maybe as great a driver as ever sat behind a horse.

“I’d like to add something about two of my heroes when I was just getting started. There are probably many reading this who may not have even heard of them. Trust me, Jack Bailey and Lloyd Gilmour were two guys who defined the term ‘good horsemen.’ You can take it to the bank that they were that.”

Q: How about trainers?

“I won’t give you five. I’ll just mention a couple that I believe are the best of current times. Jimmy Takter is incredible. If there is something challenging about a horse he will bring out the best in it. He is an incredibly hard worker. His record is beyond great. I don’t know how Tony Alagna does what he does and manages to do it so well. He trains and manages 120 horses and does an incredible job with them. I have 17 and I think that I am at or near my max with that number.”

Q: Let’s speak about the 17 head that you are training.

“There are seven 2-year-olds. Thus far, I’ve only qualified one. I’ll have two more done this week. I have three 3-year-olds and seven older race horses. I doubt that I have any champions. On the other hand, I think that just about all of them are worth paying bills on. Two of my 2-year-olds are by Stay Hungry. I like them both. I have a filly that was a little behind with sickness. I think she has extreme speed. I believe the colt by Stay Hungry will likely turn out to be the longest wearing of the pair. The thing that impresses me about mine and a few of the other ones I’ve seen is that that almost without exception, they have good mouths, seem to be willing and are good gaited. I certainly expected Somebeachsomewhere to be a great sire, but the degree of his influence is almost staggering. From only a few years in the stud, his sons are shining more than any other stallion I can recall. Captaintreacherous, Downbytheseaside, Huntsville, Sunshine Beach and now Stay Hungry. I can’t recall any other stallion ever doing that kind of job.”

Q: As a horse trainer do you see it as being difficult to make ends meet?

“Undoubtedly. Costs keep escalating. The cost of fueling vehicles on the road trickles down to every part of the sport. Not only gas, but also equipment, feed and help — help, of course, when you can get it. It seems that most people are having a problem getting help. You name the expense and it’s up. The loss of the backstretch at most tracks has been monumental, probably a whole lot more than anybody anticipated. It has hurt us in many ways. The cost of doing business is the chief one of course. There are others such as the loss of the camaraderie that was a great part of the sport. I try as hard as I’m able to keep my bills reasonable, but it is difficult, very difficult with everything around you going up to keep from going along with the tide. The other side of that equation is that most owners do not need to own horses. With expenses going up, I wonder at what point will they draw in their horns and either get out or reduce their horse holdings.”

Q: It seems like Pompano Park was your winter home base for forever. How will its closing impact you?

“It will hurt as it will hurt just about everyone in the sport, either directly or indirectly. I’ve raced there for 40 consecutive years. Until this past season I spent every off season there. This past year I moved to Sunshine Meadows just up the road a little. It’s a great place to train, but I worry about its future as well. Land expansion and value has been climbing continuously in South Florida. It may be that it’s just a matter of time before this equestrian center becomes too valuable to be a place to train horses.”

Q: Where are you located at this time of year?

“We are at Wind Gap in Pennsylvania. It’s an excellent training center that isn’t too far from most of the major east coast racetracks. We are within two hours or less from Pocono Downs, The Meadowlands, Tioga, Vernon, Yonkers and Chester.”

Q: How do you visualize our sport?

“I wish I could say otherwise, but I don’t see a whole lot to be enthusiastic about. We have many problems. The major one in my opinion is that we have lost generation upon generation of youth. You go to a racetrack and there are very few people there. Those that are there are invariably old. The tracks that have casino affiliation care little about our sport. I sometimes think that they actually want us to fail. Pennsylvania is a prime example. One of the biggest factors in our growth and success was night racing. All three Pennsylvania tracks race during the day when our customer base has to work. I firmly believe that going to and being at the track is the biggest factor in attaining any interest in our sport both from wagering and involvement factors. I hate to come across as being a believer in conspiracies but I believe, especially in Pennsylvania that shunting our product to daylight hours is a well thought out plan to get rid of us. Neither The Meadowlands nor Jeff Gural are perfect, but they are still our major beacons. The Big M is still where it’s at. It remains a class operation run extremely well. Of all our racetracks it remains the one where people most like to go, race and bet. Their numbers prove it. Yonkers sure distributes a whole lot of money to the industry, but one wonders how long it will go on. I wish there were a means to promote and spruce up the facility and the paddock. Aside from the huge amount of purse money being offered, it’s a tough place to get to. Getting over the George Washington bridge or down the New York Thruway to get there is neither easy nor cheap. I give the folks who race there nightly a whole lot of credit. Perhaps if I were younger and still driving I would feel differently.”

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