By Bill Finley
Jimmy Takter dabbled one time with a Thoroughbred he helped break named It’s Like This (Ascot Knight), he’ll watch the GI Kentucky Derby and he’ll tell you how much he admires Wayne Lukas. But this is not a Thoroughbred horse racing story. Actually, it’s not even a story about harness racing, the sport Takter has dominated almost since the day the trainer arrived from Sweden in 1982. It’s about horsemanship, excellence, an unmatched competitive drive, about someone who realized there is more to life than racing and a decision that shocked the Standardbred world.
Just 58 and still far and away the top trainer in the harness game, Takter will start his last horse Thursday at Dover Downs when he sends out Thinkbig Dreambig (Bettor’s Delight) in the Progress Pace. His stable will officially shut down Saturday. His horses will be divided between his top assistant Per Engblom and his daughter Nancy Johannsson, already a top trainer herself. Within a day or two, he will be off to Australia and New Zealand with his wife, Christina, to vacation.
“I felt like I had to do this,” he said. “I had to work harder and harder to motivate myself and you get drained. I just felt I cannot do it at that same level I had been doing it. If I can’t do it at the highest level, I don’t want to do it, and with the way I feel right now I can’t do that. I want to be on top. That’s how I am. Some people say maybe you should have 10 or 15 horses, but that’s not me. I want to have full action or no action.”
Takter was never one for conventional wisdom, and that’s among the reasons he was so good. Very few Thoroughbred trainers ever retire. They spend their last days on Earth at the barn. And for a Thoroughbred trainer to leave the sport with a barn full of championship caliber horses is absolutely unheard of. But Takter refused to let the sport dictate his life. He was no longer happy doing what he was doing, and that’s the only reason he needed to retire.
“I never allowed myself to have any hobbies,” he said. “I never allowed myself to have any time off. I was just a working dog. That can get you a little messed up in your head. If you don’t win, you become miserable. Life is short and I want to enjoy it 100%.”
Jimmy Takter is more than a good trainer. While comparing harness racing to Thoroughbred racing isn’t an apples-to-apples type thing, you can make a compelling case that he is the most gifted horseman in America today.
“He’s in a class by himself as far as a trainer and a businessman in his profession,” said Breeders’ Cup Chairman Fred Hertrich, who is a prominent breeder and owner in both sports. “Nobody outworks Jimmy, nobody out thinks Jimmy, nobody is more innovative than Jimmy. He is a credit to the game, himself and his family. He’s done it as well as anybody ever has and anybody ever will. The drive that he has to excel is remarkable, and he is his own worst critic. Jimmy Takter hates to lose and blames himself when he does. You can’t say enough good things about Jimmy Takter.”
He’s won 34 Breeders Crown races, has been named Trainer of the Year six times, more than any other trainer. He’s won the Hambletonian four times. He took Moni Maker (Speedy Crown) all over the world and won arguably the top two trotting races on the globe with her, the Prix d’Amerique in France and the Elitlopp in Sweden.
But having won virtually every important race in the sport can be a problem, at least Takter sees it that way. After a while, the thrill just is not the same.
“I’m happy for Wayne Lukas that he can still do what he does at his age and I’m happy for the people that can keep doing it forever,” Takter said. “That’s not me. I’m sure if you walk up to Todd Pletcher, who is a lot younger than me, or Baffert, who is about the same age I am, they’ll probably admit they, too, get the sense of deja vu I get. You find yourself in a rat cage and chasing something that is not there. Yes, it’s a thrill to win the Kentucky Derby, but for someone like Baffert I bet that thrill gets a little smaller every time.”
When Takter came to the U.S., harness racing was much different from the sport it is today, a sport where it sometimes seems like the only reason it still has a pulse is because of its marriage to slot machines. Back in the mid-eighties, people still came to the track and a night at the Meadowlands was electric. Never fearful of speaking his mind, Takter blames industry leaders for the shape harness racing is in now and says if the game had more life he may not be walking away.
“I don’t like to criticize our sport, but harness racing in general, and Thoroughbreds, as well, they are not the same as they used to be,” he said. “Especially harness racing. I came here 36 years ago and that was a helluva different ball game then than it is today. It was more glamorous, there was more status behind it. The Thoroughbreds still have that. Harness racing is mismanaged. We’ve been taking our customers and our owners for granted. We’ve been taking the trainers, their staff, everyone around us for granted. After all the mismanagement and with how long it has been going on, harness racing is fighting an uphill battle. It won’t matter if the Meadowlands gets a casino. Yes, they will race for more money and maybe more people will breed more horses, but it won’t bring the excitement and the glamour back to the sport. Anyone who has been around this sport for a while knows exactly what I am talking about. It used be a lot more exciting. Now it’s just become a job.”
As far as why so few Thoroughbred trainers retire, Takter wondered if they can afford to do so. He says he has not gotten rich off his day rate or the commissions he has earned from winning races, but from developing stallions. Takter and his wife often own 20 or 30% of the horses he trains. He estimates that during his career, he has developed between 50 and 60 stallions, many of whom have gone on to become some of the best sires in the sport.
“I’ve been a very good businessman,” he said. “I’ve owned a part in a lot of these great horses myself. Financially, I got myself in a very good position. People think he was a great trainer, but it’s expensive to live and even when you win a lot of races, the commission doesn’t always add up to that much money. Most of the stallions I developed, I was a part owner of. Financially I’m set for the rest of my life”
He will not completely rule out coming back some day, but doesn’t seem the least bit excited by that prospect. He has a house in Florida he will spend time at, will travel and says he will continue to spend time at his New Jersey farm, where he has a house. He says he’ll be glad to lend Engblom and Johansson a hand if they ever need one.
Most of all, he just wants to enjoy the rest of his life.
“This year, I knew it was my last year,” he said. “So I might have felt a little more relaxed about things and took things more on the easy side. Over the year, some people have told me that I seem happier.”