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03/06/2012 - By Paul Williams
Photo: McKay Imaging (mckayimaging.com)
Ruler of the Tracks
For many teenage children, adapting to an early-morning routine during their high school years can be a struggle. So imagine how impressed youd be as a parent to see your teenage son eagerly wake up before the sun rises, fervent to start working on a horse farm under the soft, cold glow of the early-morning sky seven days a week. That was the teenage lifestyle of Farmingdales Kelly Breen, now a 42-year-old horse trainer who has been making a name for himself in the horse-racing industry for more than two decades. Breen fell in love with horses when he visited Monmouth Park as a child and has used the knowledge he gained from working with local training legends like Pat McBurney and Ben Perkins Sr., as well as his own tactics at evaluating and caring for horses, to surge ahead of the pack. His talents combine the keen eye of a professional sports scout with the savvy of a stock trader, and he has used them to become one of the most successful trainers Monmouth County has ever been home to. He has raced several horses in the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders Cup, and was named the top trainer in Monmouth Park for two consecutive years. The zenith of Breens success, so far, came on June 11 of last year, when Ruler On Ice, a horse Breen purchased at a tenth of the cost that horses of a similar caliber were sold for, won the Belmont Stakes as a 24-1 long shot. Just as he did as a teenager, Breen still works seven days a week, often travelling around the country to tend to his horses, or attend horse sales, even when Monmouth Park is closed for the season. During one of his ephemeral wintertime visits to New Jersey, Breen reminisced about his career path - how a teenager was quick out of the gate and crossed the finish line at the Belmont - with Living In the Jersey Shore.
LIJS: Did you grow up in New Jersey?
KB: Yes, I grew up in Old Bridge. My parents still live in same house we grew up in. Im Jersey bred, born and raised. I have a house here and in Florida. When Monmouth Park is closed, I spend a lot of time in Florida, but Monmouth Park is like my home base. As a trainer, everything revolves around where your clientele is based. Most of my people I have trained for are Jersey people.
LIJS: So youve formed connections and relationships at Monmouth Park. Were you involved there at a young age?
KB: My family has no relations in horse racing at all. I got hooked on going to Monmouth Park when I went for a day out with my parents when I was about 12. To me going there was the greatest thing since sliced bread.
LIJS: What was so alluring about it?
KB: The gambling aspect, and the competitiveness of it. Im the youngest of four, so I had to fight at everything when I tried to be successful. I played some different sports rather well, especially wrestling, when I was younger. So Ive always been competitive. In ninth grade, I started getting more involved with horses. I would muck out 15 stalls on the farms before school. Then after school, I would go back to the farm. It was a long day for me, but it was a lot of fun. I didnt know anything different than working seven days a week. On weekends, I didnt stay out late. I went to bed early and got up early to go to work.
LIJS: How did you first land a job at one of the farms?
KB: I started out at Baymar Farms in Marlboro. Someone who was moving in down the street from the farm saw how interested I was, and asked me if I wanted to learn how to ride horses. At 13 years old, my eyes just lit up. When I started out I wanted to be a jockey, but by the time I was 16 I was too big. When I wrestled as a freshman at Cedar Ridge high school, I was 5 tall and weighed 90 pounds. I was small, very light, and thought I was going to stay that way. At 16 I had the knowledge that I needed to ride but I was 58. A little bit of the dream was gone, and I was wondering what I was going to do next.
LIJS: How did you handle that? Were you crushed?
KB: When I got too big, right away I thought Who could I learn from to become a trainer? One of the top guys at Monmouth Park at the time was Pat McBurney. I went to him and said Id like to learn more about the business. He let me basically be his shadow while I got my trainers license. From there I went out on my own. From 1992-94 I won some lower-class races, and trained for some great people. In 1994, Ben Perkins Sr., a top-flight trainer, came to me and said he liked what I could do. He invited me to work for him and said hed teach me how to work with high-caliber horses. That was the next step for me. In my life, Ive have very good transitions. He was like a great father figure. He taught me the ins and outs of horse trading, training, and showed me how to survive in the business. He has a great rapport around horses. Even though I knew I couldnt be a jockey, I loved winning, and he was a great person to learn about winning as a trainer from.
LIJS: Did you ever consider working in another field?
KB: My father and brother were steamfitters in Manhattan. After high school, my dad told me he could get me into a five-year apprenticeship program. It was a union job, and I thought it could be great. I tried it, but after my third year, I just missed the horses too much. I still worked part time at Monmouth Park on the weekends, so the burn was still there. When I said I was going to give up the apprenticeship, I knew I couldnt start it up again. But I knew this was what I wanted to do.
LIJS: How did your family react? Were they supportive because they knew how passionate you were?
KB: My dad tells me how energetic I was as a teenager about the horses. He says you had be there to see a 13-year-old getting up to go to work at 4:30 a.m. when the rest of the kids are still sleeping or watching cartoons. I considered it work, but it was also a lot of fun for me, and he knew that. He was supportive of my decision because he saw how much I loved the horse racing business. That was a big stepping stone for me. Of course, its easier to say now that it all turned out well. After spending those six years with Perkins, I went out on my own. Five years later I became the leading trainer at Monmouth Park in 2005 and 2006.
LIJS: Top trainer in Monmouth Park! How do you achieve that title?
KB: Its given on total wins. When everything was clicking just right, I was being recommended by out-of-town people. It was like the winning bug, and everyone around me had it. If I had to select between different horses for a similar race for two different owners, I would say which horse I thought was going to win, and pick the other one for a different spot in a different race that I felt it would have a better chance in. A lot of it was perfect timing, being lucky enough to have the right horses spotted in the right races, and being fortunate enough to have enough horses to do it with. During that time, I also met the people that employ me now. Currently, Im a private trainer for George and Lori Hall. They live in Manhattan and have a house in Rumson. Theyd come to the track during the summer, and I got introduced through a mutual friend. The last two years, their horses have had the most wins at Monmouth Park. It really is a dream story. I started privately working for them in 2007, and four years later were winning the Belmont Stakes. Like I said, Ive had a lot of good transitions. I always wondered how I was going to top last year. It seemed like every year, something happened to me that kept getting bigger and better.
LIJS: As you tell that story now, it almost seems like a natural climb and progression occurred. But did you ever envision that you would train a horse that would win one of the Triple Crown legs?
KB: [Smiles] No, not at all. When I went private for the Halls, I knew Id be around fewer horses than I was used to. Right now we have about 30 horses. In 2006, I think I had about 90 horses in training, across different farms and assistant trainers. George had made a comment to me that with him, we could put together a smaller mix of high-caliber horses that could win some big races. The thought of partnering up with him sounded great to me. I cant say we thought we would win that big of a race, but the thoughts were always there.
LIJS: When you saw Ruler On Ice cross the finish line, what was going through your mind?
KB: Just the raw emotions. Loris take on it was that I tackled her before the horse crossed the finish line. We were watching the horse cross the wire, and then she says the next thing she knows, shes getting hit by Lawrence Taylor. [Laughs] Before I left Monmouth Park for the Belmont I felt good about our chances. Before we left, I said to our veterinarian, were going to shock the world, but in a kidding way. This is what its all about; living the dream, going to one of the biggest races in the country, and thinking we have a chance. So Im saying that, and I dont say that all too often. That was my comment. If someone called or texted me, that was my response. Were going to shock the world. Put a few dollars on it, were going to shock the world. After the race, I looked at George and [Screams] We shocked the world! I screamed so loud, I lost my voice for two months. But thats what its all about. If you win a race that big and dont get excited, then I dont know what to say about you. A win is a win is a win in our industry.
LIJS: Is that the accomplishment youre most proud of at the moment?
KB: Yes, by far. In this business, it doesnt get much bigger than winning a Triple Crown race. Twenty-four hours after the Belmont, I ran a couple of horses at Monmouth Park. The congratulations and greetings that I received there were unbelievable. If someone would have told me when I was 16 that in 2011 I would win the Belmont Stakes [Pauses] are you kidding me? [Smiles] I probably enjoyed those 24 hours almost as much as the days my kids were born. Its so surreal to say that right now. The fun factor was that we were an underdog, and nobody thought we had a chance. The horse was training well; the people that were physically around the horse knew that. A lot of them bet on him. George looked at me just before the horse got to the gates and asked me what I thought. I showed him some of my tickets and said I bet on him. He handed me money and said Go bet more. You cant make stuff like that up. Even though we were a long shot, my heart told me that we fit. We belonged there with those great horses. I didnt know if he was the highest caliber out there, but he was the best that we had. I could close my eyes right now and vividly remember everything was going on as he was going into the starting gate. I can see the muddy track right now. Those 24 hours, not only will I never forget them, but they are as clear as day in my mind.
LIJS: Youve had a number of horses in the Breeders Cup as well.
KB: Yes. Last year, we finished 3rd in the $5 million classic with Ruler On Ice. Weve run horses in the Breeders Cup, and its something special. But the atmosphere doesnt compare to the Kentucky Derby. Last year Pants On Fire was the second choice, from the betting standpoint. We went off at 8 or 9 to 1 to win, but were the second-most horse that was bet on. I know we finished 9th, but it was nice to have the respect of the public where they thought we had a chance to win the Derby.
LIJS: Did you run any horses when the Breeders Cup was in Monmouth Park a few years ago?
KB: Actually, no. We didnt have anything to run when it was here in Monmouth Park. But thats just how it goes.
LIJS: What does it take to be a successful trainer?
KB: You have to have fast horses. For the last several years Ive gone to the sales to pick out the horses. We tried to implement some of the theories from Georges business sense into it. He has a hedge fund and says you buy low and sell high. We dont overpay. We bought the Belmont winner for $100,000 at a sale where horses were going for millions. We have a good thing going with purchasing. This was the first year we actually had a couple of homebred horses. We took some older horses that retired from racing, bred them, knocked on wood, and weve been a little bit successful with that. In 2011 one of our homebreds was Pants On Fire, who was born and raised on Georges farm in KY, and he raced in our two different million dollar races for year. We try to pick the right stallions to breed with our mares. We have a committee who decides which horses to breed and we all hope we can get something that can run real fast. It comes down to getting the most out of your horse and, hoping you bought a fast horse. Every horse Ive trained for the Halls was bought as a yearling or was born on the farm. We dont go out and purchase a horse thats won a big race already. Every horse that weve ever raced was broken in to become a racehorse, and started their very first start for me, and not someone else. Part of the accomplishment of that is saying that weve bought most of the successful horses as yearlings. Thats like going and trying to pick people for the NBA out of elementary school. Whether its the pedigree or the something about them, weve been very fortunate to pick out some fast horses. I think I have a decent eye for that.
LIJS: Youve been around a lot of great mentors and people in the business here in Monmouth Park. Did you ever consider starting off on your own at another track?
KB: Monmouth Park has been my home, and I wouldnt mind always saying its my home. Its a beautiful track. I do have horses in the winter that train in New York. With the slots there, and that helps their purses tremendously and are astronomical compared to what Monmouth Parks are. I dont know if my future is calling me to New York, but at this point in time, I have my house here, and I grew up here. I know the Halls come here for the summer and this is the summer track. Yes, so far my biggest accomplishment is in New York but to change to another main track would be hard for me. If something were to happen financially, Id say Id go with the flow, but if I could be a top dog at Monmouth Park every year, that would be incredible. We ran in the Kentucky Derby three years ago, and at the same time we were getting ready for the Monmouth Park opening a few weeks later. When Monmouth opened the gates, I felt like Dorothy. Theres no place like home. This is the house that Breen built. I know New Jersey. Its hard to fathom that the little kid from New Jersey has won races in about eight states. Its quite an accomplishment. Im happy to say Ive done it all, and that it all started here in Monmouth County.
LIJS: What is your view on the current state of racing in New Jersey?
KB: Id like to think its going to improve. I know Morris Bailey is out of the running for Monmouth Park now, but if you talk to him, hes energetic about whats going on here. Two years ago when he had our million dollar giveaway days, purses were unbelievable. We got some big-name trainers from places like California. But when you dont know if its just a one-time trial or not, people cant uproot their families and move their business here. Sure its great and the purses were high, but then the next year, Gov. Christie says we might have to shut down the track. So its tough to get people to commit if they dont know whats to happen year-to-year. They have to decide if theyre going to come here and try and win some money for one year, or go to a place like Belmont Park, where they know year after year that the purses are going to be there. So some of the political things inside our own industry right now are really hurting us. We dont even know whats going to happen in May of this year, as far as how much money theyre going to give away or what people are going to do about taking it over. When racing in the state was doing well, it helped to fund Giants Stadium. No one talks about that anymore though. I can say Monmouth Park is one of the most beautiful tracks Ive ever been to. So Im hoping to say that things will be in good order here, and I hope to say horse racing in New Jersey will be around for a long time. Numbers at the horse sales are strong, and they cant all be getting behind the gates at the same few tracks that have slots.
LIJS: What does your typical work week consist of?
KB: Right now Im in Florida. I spend most of my time in the winter there. During the summer at Monmouth Park, Im out of the house by 4:30 a.m. and head right to the barn to check on the horses before they go to the track, which opens at 5:30 a.m. We feed the horses at 10:30 and make sure everything is alright with them. If we are racing, we get ready for our upcoming races, which start at 1 p.m. Then we feed the horses again at night. On a day where I have a bunch of horses running, I start at 4:30 a.m., and our team could be at Monmouth Park until 6 p.m., seven days a week. The horses dont feed themselves. They cant tell us My leg is sore. We stay on top of them, along with our vet.
LIJS: Right, you need the horses to be as healthy as they can be.
KB: And a whole lot of luck.
LIJS: How long have you been married for?
KB: Melissa and I have been married for 13 years. Shes my secretary. Things can get hectic on her end, but she keeps everything together very well. We have two children, Tiffany, whos 12, and KJ, whos 7.
LIJS: Are your children as interested in horse racing at a young age as you were?
KB: They like it a little bit. Tiffany did some riding last year, but when it was time to do something else she moved on. Shes a good student and is involved with some drama clubs. KJ likes to plays hockey. They enjoy coming around the barn, but its nothing like the sparkle in my eye that I had when I was a kid.
LIJS: Is there any downtime for a trainer in this business?
KB: Its hard to say since it varies from year to year. This was probably one of our crazier years. The horse sales start in September. As soon as they start, were transient. This year we had horses stabled in Los Angeles in Delta Downs, which had a $1 million race we were trying to prep a horse for, and we were gunning for the Breeders Cup. Like I said, it varies from year to year, but at times its a good thing. If youre not in those big races, then your horses arent running that fast. We had fast horses this year and we had a chance to run in the $1 million Delta jackpot, and the $5 million Breeders Cup classic. Coming into Thanksgiving, we send horses to New York and Florida for the winter. We had about thirty horses scattered across five states. Thereve been times when Ive had birthdays or Thanksgiving dinner alone or we had the family over a week early because we knew I wasnt going to be around. I make sure were always around each other for Christmas, but other than that, horses have to come first. No horse, no meal.
LIJS: When you do have some time to yourself, what do you like to do for recreation?
KB: Well I live on Eagle Oaks Golf course. I enjoy golf, and this is a tremendous course. We used to have our Haskell golf tournament here, and it was a blast. Here, to use a horseracing term, Im just six furlongs away from the first hole. I think golf is a great four hours away from reality. It gets me to clear my head. I still ride some horses in the morning every now and then. My wife and I used to ski. But golf is what I enjoy the most. Ive got a low handicap. Once in a while I can play a round at par. Im competitive with golf too, thats just part of my demeanor. But its also a lot of fun.
LIJS: Is there one ultimate goal that youve set for yourself?
KB: If you asked 99.9% of horse trainers, if they ever have a chance to get a hold of a super horse, that goal would be to win the Kentucky Derby. Ive been in the race twice. The rush of being there, and around 150,000 people, is awesome. Every room has a balcony, and everyone is cheering for something. When your parade is coming to the track, and people are rooting for your number, Id say its like getting announced at the Super Bowl or the Olympics. Once you do it, you want to do it again. The first year we were in it, we ran two horses, West Side Bernie and Atomic Rain. When we were getting ready to walk in, George said to me, while we were walking on the track and going toward the paddock, Can we take another lap before we have to go in? You really just have to soak it in. Its like a wave of people cheering. Its really just so moving. Theres nothing you could ever experience like it. So I cant imagine what would be like to win it.
LIJS: Thank you very much for your time today Kelly. It was a pleasure talking to you, and good luck with the horses this year.
KB: Thank you.
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