Winning Is Never Boring

Noel Daley might consider himself to be a tad boring, but there’s nothing boring about winning, and that’s something that this native Australian has been good at for many years. By Chris Lomon. 

Although he might respectfully protest, there is ample reason to refute the “pretty boring” label Noel Daley once gave himself.

Whether it’s the days before he became one of Standardbred racing’s most successful and respected trainers, the road that led him there, the high-profile horses he’s campaigned, or the major races he’s won, those moments are anything but mundane and monotonous for the humble horseman who hails from Australia.

While Daley might fancy himself the uninteresting type and prefers to let his horses do the talking, make no mistake, he certainly has a story worth telling.

How he originally punched his ticket to the racing world is a compelling tale in itself.

Growing up in Mount Isa, a city in the Gulf Country region of Queensland, Australia, Daley found work with Trans Australia Airlines – later known as Qantas Airlines – for his first full-time job. 

“That’s what I did before it all started. I was on the ticket counter at the airport, just checking people in, basically.”

A few years into that career, Daley, who had been a horse racing fan growing up, would change course, so to speak, and move from dealing with passengers to working with pacers and trotters.

Although he had no inclination as to whether or not the career move would pay dividends – or the bills – he didn’t exactly view the leap of faith through the lens of a longshot gamble either.

“I started out buying a horse and gave it to a young guy in Australia [to train], and then I started going out to see him. That’s how I got into the game. Then I did a really silly thing and quit my job at the airline and started working for him. The horse did okay, so I decided to jump on a plane and I came over to the United States with it.” 

Consider it Daley’s version of California dreaming.

His foray into American racing began at Los Alamitos, before he headed east in 1990 to work as a groom for Brett Pelling.

It proved to be a pivotal move for the young horseman.

“I thought that I would give it a go, so I worked for [trainer] Pete Foley in California for six months. The girl I was going out with at the time – we then broke up and I was going to go back to Australia – she mentioned that one of the horses she was looking after was going to New York to go to Brett Pelling. So, I jumped on a plane and went to work with him.”

Under the tutelage of one of the sport’s top trainers, Daley quickly learned the racing ropes, working in various capacities over the next eight years.

He was part of a Pelling Stable that dominated The Meadowlands during the 1990s, the operation winning the training title six times.

“Starting out, working for Brett, that was the time he was just getting into working with the babies. I arrived in the summer of 1990 and it was the perfect place to learn. It was such a good spot to understand everything you need to about the horses. ‘Nifty’ [Norman] was his second trainer. I started out as a groom and then I became one of Brett’s trainers. Those eight years were a huge head start for me.”

Eventually, after a few years of training horses for Pelling, Daley went out on his own.

When it came to a blueprint for his own success however, the young conditioner didn’t exactly have one. 

“You hope that things will work out when you make a choice like that. I went out on my own with no real gameplan. I had two horses. Not too long after that I had a guy, Adam Victor, walk into the paddock one night, and he wanted to get into the horses and horse racing. He didn’t have any and I [only] had four or five.” 

As it would turn out, Daley, the man known as “Oz” in U.S. Standardbred circles, would be just fine.

Actually, much better than fine. 

“We had a little bit of luck straight off the bat, and within a few years, I had 125 horses… 90 of them belonged to Adam. We had a great run. Mr Muscleman really got things rolling. We had fun. We flew him to race in the Elitlopp. Explosive Matter, we bred him, and we got to fly him in a private jet and race in Italy. That was pretty cool. All of us, we had a really good run. They’re out of the business now, but I look back at the horses we had and it was just remarkable.”

Daley’s biggest success story has been trotting titan Mr Muscleman, a $2,000 yearling that would go on to make more than $4 million. He was a three-time Dan Patch Award winner, an O’Brien Award winner in 2004, and the 2005 Trotter of the Year in the United States. Other stars he’s campaigned include 2008 O’Brien Award and two-time Dan Patch Award winner My Little Dragon, Little Miss Dragon, Explosive Matter, Cedar Dove, Caviart Ally and All Speed Hanover. Another huge career highlight came in winning the 2011 Hambletonian with Broad Bahn. 

In spite of all those successes, Daley, in 2018, made the decision to return to his native Australia, where he would continue to train horses for high-profile owners Emilio and Maria Rosati.

“I was homesick and that’s what I based the decision on to go back to Australia. I sold all my horses in New Jersey and I ended up in Sydney, which is a long way away from where I’m from… but the racing just wasn’t what I was used to. After a while I realized it wasn’t for me, so I headed back to the U.S.”

He arrived back in America, in late 2019, with 2,570 career wins and $61,454,588 in earnings to his credit. Since then he’s added another 140 wins and $4.2 million more in purses.

But if Daley, who also has eight Breeders Crown wins to his name, had any trepidation about how his second stint in the States would turn out, he wouldn’t have to wait long for his answer.

A new stable grew to 18 head fairly quickly and included stakes-winner Princess Deo and more than a dozen yearlings. One of the first babies he bought was eventual Goldsmith Maid winner Anoka Hanover, a $35,000 purchase who has bankrolled $792,739 to date. Daley co-owns the four-year-old Donato Hanover mare with Crawford Farms Racing, L.A. Express Stable LLC and Caviart Farms.

And then of course there is Pebble Beach. 

The colt’s sire, Downbytheseaside, won his Pepsi North America Cup elimination and finished third in the 2017 final. Pebble Beach is from his first crop and is the first foal out of the Western Ideal mare Santa Rosa. Last year he became only the fifth two-year-old to ever win faster than 1:49 when he won the Kentucky Sires Stakes Championship in 1:48.4 at The Red Mile.

For a trainer whose name has been connected mostly to trotters over the past 10 or so years, Daley is delighted to have struck gold with the fleet-of-foot pacer bred in Kentucky by Brittany Farms.

“We’ve had a lot of luck with trotters over the years. I didn’t ever go out there thinking I love trotters more than pacers, it’s just the way it worked out, and we have been very fortunate to have found some good ones. We really hadn’t had too many pacers in the barn in the last decade. This fellow, he was the only pacing colt we bought that year. We just happened to buy the right one. One of my owners called me up and asked if I could go take a look at one horse in particular at the sale… so I went to look, and I really liked the horse. He’s not very big, but he’s a beautiful horse. I figured he was one of the better bred Downbytheseaside horses, so I went to have a look at a bunch of the other ones he had sired, to see what they looked like.”

Convinced he was on the right track to securing a high-potential talent, Daley’s next move was to work the phones.

“After that, the first thought was, ‘Now I have to find owners who want to buy him.’ I jumped on the phone with Joe Sbrocco. He and I have had horses together, not big numbers, on-and-off over the years. I told him there was a Downbytheseaside that I liked and asked if he would like a piece. He said that he already had five of them, but he’d call me back. About a half hour later he called me back and said he would take a quarter and he had another owner who would take a quarter. When he asked how much he would bring, I told him it would likely be around $75,000. He agreed to go to $80,000, and I bought him for $85,000. Joe called and said, ‘So, I guess we didn’t get him.’ I told him that we did, and everyone was fine with it.”

Especially now, it’s understandable why the group – Sbrocco, Patricia Stable, Country Club Acres Inc. and Laexpressfoderadeovolente – would be. 

Daley and company, plus many others, were impressed with Pebble Beach from the start.

“When you’re training them down, you don’t always know what you have. We hadn’t had too many pacers but I kept telling the owners early on that I think he’s a good one, but I just don’t know. Whether he can pace :50 or :48, there’s a big difference…. it just so happens though, he can go :48. But you just don’t know if they will do that. He’s got a great turn of his speed, that’s his thing. From the first time we qualified him at our farm you could see it… he got away last and made a move. I thought to myself, ‘Wow…’ The phone was ringing from the very first time we qualified him. He’s always, always showed he’s a nice horse. He knows he’s a colt, but he’s not mean. He can be a little noisy when you’re walking down the barn, but he’s very intelligent. He’s a smaller horse, but he’s very correct. He’s beautiful, stands straight and has always had that turn of speed.”

That lightning-quick turn of speed was on full display, whenever his driver needed it, on June 18th at Woodbine Mohawk Park, as Pebble Beach, with Todd McCarthy in the race bike, romped in the 39th edition of the $1 million classic for three-year-old colt & gelding pacers.

“He showed now he’s got a bit of versatility - he can do it in front or behind. He’s got a wicked turn of speed. It’s probably our biggest win. Mr Muscleman won a million-dollar race [the 2003 $1.3 million Canadian Trotting Classic] up here. It’s good to have a pacer [do it]. I’ve never won a big race with a pacer like this.” 

There is, however, one regret on Daley’s part when it comes to Pebble Beach.

“We bought one pacing colt and it looks like we bought the right one. I don’t own a piece of this fella though, which is a bit of a regret because I usually own a piece of the ones I train, but I’m just so happy to be part of the team. The owners are a great group of guys.”

And the convivial Daley, now 60, isn’t putting retirement on the radar yet either.

For now, he’ll keep doing what he enjoys, a job that has never really felt like one.

“I’ve had a pretty good run and I love doing what I’m doing. Not a lot of people get to do that, make a living from something they love to do. It’s all pretty cool. I’m a lot smaller version now [stable size]. I run in the 30s. The last sale, I wound up with more babies than I thought. We ended up in the high 40s at the beginning of the year. At this age, that number is a little much. I’m happy having the number in the 30s. That’s plenty for me.”

When he’s not with the horses, Daley spends the vast majority of his time away from the racetrack with his nine-year-old son Max. Father and son were also together at Woodbine Mohawk Park to watch Pebble Beach win the Cup. 

“He keeps me pretty busy. He plays soccer, football and does boxing as well. I’m very lucky, he’s a really good kid. We have a pretty good life.”

It’s a life that wasn’t necessarily seen as part of that original gameplan, but one that has turned out far better than Daley could have ever envisioned. 

He’s humbled to have had a first-class seat to witness it all. 

Perhaps, on reflection, Daley might not be the “pretty boring” guy he once proclaimed to be.  

“I’ve had a good life and no regrets. Sometimes, you stumble upon things, and they just happen to work out.” 

 This feature originally appeared in the July issue of TROT Magazine. Subscribe to TROT today by clicking the banner below.

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