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A Man For All Animals

Jimmy Takter

If you’re involved in harness racing anywhere around the globe, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Jimmy Takter. The man’s record speaks for itself, having trained winners of over $134,000,000 in purses, and having won almost every big race that racing has to offer. What more is there to know?

Enter longtime friend and partner John Fielding, who was happy to share some behind-the-scenes thoughts and stories about the man who now has a spot in the racing halls of fame in Sweden, the U.S., and Canada. By Keith McCalmont

Prominent owner-breeder John Fielding has won countless races in partnership with Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Takter. Together, they’ve campaigned racing superstars such as See You At Peelers, Father Patrick, Uncle Peter, Ken Warkentin and Solveig to name only a few.

Fielding acknowledges Takter as the-best-of-the-best at the profession of conditioning Standardbreds.

“His legacy is his consistency at the top level. There’s really not much he hasn’t won,” said Fielding.

More than just friends in racing, Fielding and Takter are friends outside the sport as well. In addition to some business investments, Fielding and his wife, Pat, have traveled to Sweden with Jimmy and Christina Takter and invited the Takters to their cottage on Lake Muskoka in scenic Gravenhurst, Ontario. It was there that Fielding realized Takter’s prowess with animals knows no bounds.

“We had this young yellow lab named Lexington that was just the greatest dog ever. Jimmy was at the cottage for 5 days one year when she was just two years old,” recalled Fielding. “She was part retriever and she wouldn’t retrieve anything. You’d throw the ball and she’d just take off with it. She wouldn’t come when you called. She was so ill behaved.”

But the Swedish master has a certain influence when it comes to animals. A give-and-take of attention, a soothing voice, a calm demeanour and a desire to connect. Over the course of five days, Lexington transformed from puppy to proper dog.

“By the end of that trip, Jimmy had her running, sitting; whatever he said, she was right on it. He just had that connection. She loved him, and he loved her. He just has that connection with animals,” said Fielding.

It could be that Takter’s empathetic nature plays a factor in his ability to connect to our furry friends of all shapes and sizes. Takter himself, in a previous TROT story regarding his retirement, noted how his sensitive nature played a part in both his ability to succeed but also, ultimately, his desire to step back from training.

“You take every race and every horse hard. Horses get hurt,” said Takter at the time. “And if you’re a sensitive person, and I think you have to be to be a great trainer; otherwise, if you don’t have any feeling for the horse, I don’t think you’re a great trainer.”

Fielding has observed Takter’s interactions with his trainees for many years and fully realizes the depths of his commitment to their welfare far beyond the racing arena.

“One of the best things is that he loves his horses. That’s important,” said Fielding. “At his farm, there’s a paddock behind the house with all these old racehorses, including one of my favorites, In Focus. He’s a trotter and he won a Breeders Crown. Jimmy still has him. He loved that horse. And he’s always going to visit Solveig and Shake It Cerry – he likes to go to the farm and just visit their foals.”

Oddly enough, one of the most memorable wins for Fielding and Takter came on a night that Takter was unable to join in the festivities.

Breeders Crown night in 2011 at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto was notable for a fierce winter storm that stranded some of the brightest stars in the sport from competing in the year-end showcase, including drivers Tim Tetrick, David Miller, Yannick Gingras, George Brennan, Trond Smedshammer and, of course, Takter himself.

That Takter wasn’t in the house that night was an anomaly as it seems, at least on big race days, the man was everywhere, often with more than one contender in each race. Fielding acknowledges that the constant travel was likely a major fact in Takter’s retirement.

“He never stops,” said Fielding. “He makes the long drives to Meadowlands and Poconos and everywhere else, it had to tire him out. He did that for decades. I’ve been with him since the late ‘90s and won many Breeders Crowns with him.

“I think he was pretty spent,” continued Fielding. “There’s nobody who works like he does. As an owner, you know you can go to bed at night, the night before any race - be it an overnight or a stakes race - you know that every stone has been turned up and put back down again. He covers every detail of every aspect of every horse and that’s why he has been so successful. He works tirelessly.”

That 2011 Breeders Crown night will stand out in the minds of most Canadian racing fans as the night San Pail stamped his authority on the division, turning back the European invaders Rapide Lebel and Commander Crowe.

Fielding recalls the night for a horse named after his late brother.

“One of my favourite wins with him was when Uncle Peter won the Breeders Crown [2YO] Trot because we named him after my brother Peter, who passed away at 37 from Leukemia,” recalled Fielding. “My family was there that evening and it was a very special moment for us, but there was a terrible snow storm and Dave Palone had to drive for us because the drivers didn’t make it.”

Takter was Uncle Peter’s regular driver at that time, and his ability as a driver can often go overlooked, but it’s a skill that Fielding really appreciated as someone who has invested a lot of money in the game and understands that a return on investment is important.

“Lots of times the drivers overdrive because they want to win,” said Fielding. “Jimmy, in particular with young trotters, would drive a great race and finish second when someone else might have been aggressive and finished sixth. We’d always joke around, ‘did you get a cheque? Let’s get cheques, cheques, cheques.’ When you overdrive and park them, it’s not good. I like how Jimmy drove.”

Not only was Uncle Peter in search of an important win without his regular driver, but Fielding also noted how Takter, on the night of a race, could often make a winning decision during warm-ups.

“The preparation is second to none and he has great staff. He’s completely detailed to the point of what degree the shoe should be at,” said Fielding. “I’ve seen him many times change the shoe after the warm-up. He thrives on big nights.”

This night, however, perhaps with a little divine intervention, Uncle Peter got the job done. With Palone subbing in the bike for Takter, Uncle Peter enjoyed a perfect, relaxed trip waiting until the stretch run to brush by Possess The Will for a memorable score in 1:55.

Even though Takter has just retired from overseeing a band of 60 horses based at farms in Kentucky, New Jersey and Canada, Fielding dreams of seeing the conditioner return to his craft one day – but with a different breed.

“My big thing now is trying to get him train thoroughbreds,” said Fielding.

It may sound far fetched but Fielding is convinced Takter has the acumen.

“When he first decided to train pacers, one of the first was See You At Peelers. She was a homebred and I bought in just before she qualified. He’s just a great horseman,” said Fielding.

See You At Peelers was owned by Takter’s wife Christina, who also bred the mare, along with Fielding and Fielding’s brother Jim.

As the first pacer ever bred by the Takters, See You At Peelers turned out to be a special one launching her career with a 22- race win streak.

She completed her perfect juvenile season with a lucky 13th victory in the Breeders Crown at Pocono to secure divisional honours in the U.S. Then, the Bettors Delight-West Side Glory starlet continued her success as a sophomore winning her first nine races, including a world-record equaling 1:49.2 score in the Empire Breeders Classic at Tioga Downs. She also dusted the boys in the Art Rooney Pace at Yonkers en route to again taking divisional honours south of the border.

The special pacer graced the pages of Sports Illustrated and the New York Times and Fielding believes that Takter himself could make headlines now, with a change of tactics.

It’s a concept with a backstory worth telling as it turns out Takter already has had success training a thoroughbred, with the stakes-placed It’s Like This, purchased for a paltry $5,000 at the 2005 CTHS Yearling Sale.

“Jimmy was with Dave Anderson at the CTHS Thoroughbred Sale, and while there he looked at a horse he thought looked just like Ken Warkentin,” laughed Fielding, in reference to the millionaire trotter and 2004 two-year-old Breeders Crown winner trained by Takter and owned by Fielding. So, Jimmy said, ‘I’ll buy this horse.’”

But, Takter wasn’t going to jump into the thoroughbred game without his friend and partner Fielding.

“Jimmy phoned me up and said, ‘Hey Johnny, you wanna go in?’ and I said I’m in,” recalled Fielding. “So, we went thirds with Dave and Jimmy and he bought the horse for $5,000.”

Now, about that name – It’s Like This. Turns out, that’s a Takter reference as well.

“When Jimmy talks and he’s telling a story he’ll always start by saying, ‘It’s like this…’” said Fielding, conjuring up his best Takter impression – and not a bad one at that. “He still says it all the time, ‘It’s like this Johnny…”

So, the unlikely scenario plays out and the bay son of Ascot Knight heads to Takter’s farm, as the lone thoroughbred amongst a group of standardbreds, to prepare for a career in racing.

“Jimmy galloped him and took him to the lake and swam him and took him on jogs through the forest in behind his farm,” said Fielding. “He broke him, trained him down, and sent him to (trainer) Mike Doyle at Woodbine.” Racing in the silks of Anderson, Fielding and Christina Takter, It’s Like This showed potential, picking up cheques, cheques, cheques in his first five starts, including a pair of runner-up efforts, before graduating on November 22, 2006. As it turned out, the longer the horse went, the better, and a switch to turf also agreed with It’s Like This.

The unlikely $5,000 Takter purchase showed enough potential that he was entered in the $500,000 Breeders’ Stakes, third leg of the Canadian Triple Crown, at 1 1/2-miles on the E.P. Taylor Turf Course.

Sent to post at odds of 48/1 under jockey Tyler Pizarro, It’s Like This was next to last in the field of nine at the mile marker before launching a serious bid turning for home. Unfortunately, the well-regarded Marchfield would not be denied, rallying from last to first but It’s Like This stayed on strong to complete the trifecta and grab a cheque for $55,000.

“That horse made nearly $300,000,” laughed Fielding. “It’s unbelievable. He finished third in a Canadian Classic. So, I’m always in his ear now to train thoroughbreds. He’s just a very talented horseman.”

A number of famous thoroughbred trainers got their start with other breeds including two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert, who got his start in quarter horse racing. Fielding has had great success with both thoroughbreds and standardbreds and believes that Takter could easily follow the path of Eclipse Award-winning thoroughbred trainer Chad Brown, who got his first experience around horses during high school, working with standardbred trainer Paul Kelley at Saratoga Raceway.

Brown conditions the Fielding-bred Rushing Fall, a winner of over $1.5 million, and seven of eight career starts, including a victory in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

“It’s a path that worked for Chad Brown and he’s one of the best,” said Fielding. “I tease Jimmy that he’s worried he won’t be able to cut it in the thoroughbreds and that gets him fired up and his juices flowing because he’s a competitive guy. We’ll see what happens. The jury may still be out on that. He’s just a crazy good horseman.”

Takter’s daughter Nancy Johansson and his leading assistant Per Engblom are running the show now but Fielding says his friend is still a big part of the operation.

“He’s still very involved in the standardbreds. We call him the CEO,” said Fielding.

And perhaps Fielding, in not wanting to slow down and retire in his own right, wishes his friend would come back to the sport. The two gentlemen are hard workers blessed with great success.

John and his brother Bill founded IDMD (Innovative Designers and Manufacturers of Displays), with a focus on advertising specialties. Through sheer hard work and determination the business grew, and in the mid-2000s, the business partnered with a privatized firm and IDMD became Array Marketing.

In addition, Fielding is the Principal of Amsterdam Brewing in Toronto and also serves on the board of Woodbine Entertainment - along with a wide array of other business interests.

But even if his friend Jimmy doesn’t come back to train – standardbreds, thoroughbreds or impudent yellow labs – Fielding knows he’ll have a friend for life.

“He’s a very funny guy and very competitive,” said Fielding. “One thing I’ve always liked about him is that he could eat at any man’s table – whether it be the CEO of Amazon or anyone really – he’s extremely well rounded and very smart.”

Hard work and great success have bonded the two friends and Fielding looks forward to the next visit from his old pal, Jimmy – and there’s no invitation required.

“Jimmy used to come and stay at the house with us when we had horses racing at Woodbine,” recalled Fielding. “There were some occasions when I didn’t know he’d be coming, and I’d get home and Jimmy would be there.

“Now, Jimmy is not a big drinker, but one day he came over while I was at work and he’d gotten into the wine cellar. When I got home, there he was, sitting there in the living room with a great vintage bottle of wine watching TV.”

Sounds like the perfect way to raise a glass to what has been a great career in racing.

This feature originally appeared in the June issue of TROT Magazine.
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