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Jimmy Takter

Considered by some as the greatest trainer ever, Jimmy Takter has little, if anything, left to prove.

He’s only 58, but he’s tired, and the wins don’t seem to bring the same thrill they once did, so at the end of the year he’s planning on hanging it all up - for now at least. TROT sat down and discussed a myriad of topics with the outspoken horseman who came to America from Sweden many years ago, and re-wrote the harness racing record books on this side of the Atlantic. By Keith McCalmont

Jimmy Takter is over it.

He’s tired of being body sore and done with overseeing a band of 60 horses spread out at facilities in Kentucky, New Jersey and Canada.

“I fly between the three places. I just got home today, and I haven’t seen my wife in three weeks,” an under-the-weather Takter said with a gravelly voice.

At the end of the current season, Takter is going to hang up his tack and call it quits on a storied career that saw him condition a seemingly endless line of superstars such as Moni Maker, Father Patrick, Muscle Massive, Mr Feelgood, Malabar Man, Ariana G and Kadabra to name only a few.

He’s accomplished so much. In fact, with over $6 million in purse earnings in 2018, he’s still very much at the top of his craft. And yet, winning races just doesn’t do it for him anymore.

“No, not really,” said Takter. “Yeah, I love the horses. But, the racing, I’ve done it for 35 years and it’s not the same as it used to be. I think that’s why I decided this is my last year. I have a hard time to motivate myself the same as I used to. I’m working like crazy still, but it’s harder to do it in the right way for me.

“I’ve been going 180 MPH for 35 years and after a while you come to a dead end, you know,” continued Takter. “I feel I need to get away from the game for awhile. If it’s permanently, I don’t know. I don’t know how I’ll feel three years from now. I’m not that old but right now I feel like it’s time to hang up my hat for awhile.”

Takter is hedging his bets. He’s done. Maybe. But after a lengthy interview with the great man, it’s hard to tell if the 58-year-old native of Mantorp, Sweden is tired, sick or depressed. Or a bit of each.

“We’re all individuals. In my case, I feel like this is something I have to do. I feel I would not do a good job if I continue, because I’m tired of it. I’m like a hockey player that’s played for 25 years, my body hurts,” said Takter.

Statistics Canada’s 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) on Mental Health noted that 5.4% of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over, reported symptoms that met the criteria for a mood disorder in the previous 12 months, including 4.7% for major depression.

Depression is a tricky topic for anyone to discuss and perhaps more so when you’re a public figure not wanting to draw attention to a deeply personal issue, but Takter is willing to admit it’s a problem.

“It does factor in a little bit. You take every race and every horse hard. Horses get hurt,” said Takter. “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,” said Takter.

As a trainer, Takter has won 113 of his 466 starts thus far in 2018 (24%). Put another way - Takter has lost 353 times this year, and each defeat left its mark.

“I take it very personal when my horses get hurt or things don’t go right for them,” said Takter. “You can go out and win six Breeders Crowns in one day and then get disqualified with one you should have won, and you still have another owner that was disappointed in that race. There’s always disappointments. We’re batting about 24 percent and that means you’re losing three out of four races.”

Winning helps alleviate some of the stress. As does spending time with his wife, Christina and his family.

“I have great support from my wife. She’s been my backbone and she knows how I am. She always supports me through my career and has been a fantastic partner in my life to help me with everything in dealing with things,” said Takter. “I’m not easy to get along with. It’s not easy to be married to a guy that travels 200 days a year. That’s a tough woman to handle that. I owe it to spend a little time with her. She’s also had enough of this really. She works as hard as I do. Always did.”

And so, Takter will walk away from racing at the end of this season. Or will he?

Trainer Ron Burke can’t imagine a scenario where his good friend Jimmy will be able to stay away from horse racing.

“Jimmy tells me he likes to travel. So, go travel. But then what is he going to do? You’re going to be bored. I don’t buy that he’ll do it,” said Burke, who with more than 42,000 career starts, knows a thing or two about being busy. “I don’t know how you can quit when you’re still at the top. It’s different if you quit when you feel like you’re not competitive anymore.”

With 33,408 career losses to his name, Burke is uniquely qualified to understand the Takter experience.

“I understand as well as anybody what he goes through and the pressure to stay on top and to match last year. It gets to you,” admitted Burke. “We talked about this the other day and he asked how old I was. I told him I was 48 and he said, ‘you won’t make it to 58’. But I don’t know… I still love to race. No matter all the other stress, I love to race. When I get to race it makes a difference to me and I get over it.

“When you have a big barn you know that every day brings a new disaster,” continued Burke. “But the only thing is, every day brings greatness too. You have to embrace the greatness and that’s hard to do.”

Burke identifies with Takter’s need for perfection and desire to win. And he also understands how if you focus for too long on any one item, without practicing a modicum of mindfulness, that your own thoughts can lead you down a dark path.

“I can understand people like Jimmy more than I can understand people that aren’t like that. Because I’m like that. To me that’s normal,” said Burke. “Most people look at us and say we’re abnormal. You have to just learn to do whatever makes you happy. I think he’ll find out that he misses this more than he thinks.

“I like winning qualifiers. I like winning anything. That’s what will keep me going. I think Jimmy will miss that rush. It’s like a drug and when you don’t get it anymore, you’ll start to miss it.”

And so, Takter will take a bow and look for something else to fulfill his life.

“I don’t really have many interests. I never had any hobbies. I’m a terrible golfer. It’s going to be an issue and it’s going to take a while to adjust,” admitted Takter. “I’m a very active person and so is my wife. But we’ll find something. Maybe we do something else. In 2019, I’m going to rest my mind, exercise and travel a little bit. Be around horses when I want to be around them, but I don’t want the daily responsibility that I have right now.”

Burke remains sceptical of his good friend’s conundrum.

“I’ve tried to cut back but I can’t do it. I thrive on the numbers and the amount of races. I love it. But with that comes all the stress,” said Burke. “I’ll be interested more than anybody to see how this works out for Jimmy. Because maybe I’ll be up next. Right now, I love the game and Jimmy does too. He’s just been at it a lot longer. Jimmy will be back. I wish him the best and hope he loves his semi-retirement, but I think he’ll be back quicker than he thinks.”

Over the course of a lengthy conversation, Takter is thoughtful in considering the questions posed to him but also very direct in his responses. He doesn’t pull his punches.

And he doesn’t mind if he ruffles a few feathers along the way.

“I’m sure people say good (things), a lot of people say shit. I like to compete, but I’ve always been fair. I never backstabbed anybody in the sport. I’d never do that. I’m a straight shooter. If I think something is not right I speak up,” said Takter. “Sometimes I get in trouble because people don’t like when you say something is wrong but that’s how I am. I feel if I don’t speak up, who else will. I’m of an age now that I have stripes on my shoulder and I can speak up and a lot of times people listen.

“I was out at Red Mile last Sunday to race sires stakes and the track was horrible,” continued Takter. “I told management we need to move these races to tomorrow and they did. At least they listened. Some like that about me.”

So, let’s stir the pot a wee bit and find out what gets Takter’s goat.

“Tracks don’t get along together and work together. We’re letting the crooks continue racing and everyone knows there are crooks, but nobody does anything about it,” started Takter. “I see the sport heading in the wrong direction. I feel we should have a commissioner in the sport to rule over United States and Canada. Instead we have jurisdictions that say this guy can race in New York but cannot race at Meadowlands...”

And another thing…

“We need to start to take care of the owners in our sport. We take them for granted. Owners spend a tremendous amount of money,” rallied Takter. “They go to the horse sale and buy horses and I’m amazed that we keep having owners because at the racetracks, no one takes care of owners when they come there. A lot of racetracks don’t have a clubhouse anymore. Owners don’t show up to the races anymore. Everyone stays home and watches the simulcast because it’s not as fun to go to the races.”

In a bit of harmony between the fans and the athletes, Takter also stands up for the punters.

“It’s the same with gamblers that are coming every night. You need to make sure these guys are very satisfied to be there. I don’t think we do enough to market the sport,” said Takter. “We were the first gambling sport and now look at how the casinos host people… there’s a lot we need to do in the sport. People need to come up with better ideas to make it more exciting to be at the track.”

Takter concedes that not all racetracks can be painted with the same brush.

“I think a lot of tracks try but they have limited resources. Hoosier Park is one of the tracks that when you come there, you feel very welcome. Hoosier does great marketing and I think Mohawk does a good job too, they have a good broadcast,” said Takter. “A lot of tracks… they don’t care at all. They just want that casino money. One of these days the government will take that money away from them and what will you have then. You have nothing.”

For fear of drawing up Takter as being unreasonable, it should be known that the elder statesman is both considerate and humbled by those that do approach him. In fact, he welcomes the interruption.

“Sometimes people come up to me and ask me for advice and I don’t even know who they are, but I always sincerely try to help them,” said Takter. “It is a good feeling. Sometimes I wish they’d report back so I’d know if I helped.

“I’m not afraid to ask for advice myself. I had a horse today I sent to Ron Burke,” continued Takter. “We’re good friends and I couldn’t get this pacing filly right. I asked Ronnie to try her for me. The day you think you’re better than everybody, that’s the day you’re finished. Let him try her out, I haven’t done any good it’s time to let someone else try.”

When Takter steps away, he’ll hand the horses over to his daughter Nancy Johansson and his assistant Per Engblom.

“They’ll have a direct line, so they can call me with any questions and maybe I’ll go down to the barn and sit behind a couple horses when I feel like it and try to help them out,” said Takter. “Nancy is a fantastic horsewoman and does a great job and has already a Horse of the Year and won Breeders Crowns. She’s a great talent and I’m pretty sure she’ll have a bright future for herself as a trainer.

“Maybe I can help her out on my own time… when I have to and when I want to. I don’t want to deal with everything about the whole business, I’ve had enough of that.”

Given his own issues from working so hard in the sport - the exhaustion, the depression and losing that valuable time with family - it makes you wonder if Takter worries about how his daughter will deal with the pressure.

“I am (worried about her). I’m worried about the whole sport,” said Takter, who admits he wishes younger people would embrace the sport. “When I was young I worked for my father and he was the foundation of my training career.

“I wanted to get all the knowledge that I could. I’m surprised we don’t get that many people who want to work for guys like me or my other colleagues that are doing well. It’s a great job in a lot of ways but it’s a time pressure job and a lot of people don’t want to do that. They want to work a 9-5 job and be open on the weekend. We’re never off. It’s hard on the families.”

When all is said and done, racing historians will have much to ponder when trying to peg just how good the Swedish master really was as a horseman.

“To me, he’s the greatest trotting trainer of my time. Look at how many studs he produced and how many big races he’s won and how often he was the main foe in those big races,” said Burke.

Burke scoffs at the idea of naming the one horse that separates Takter from the rest of his colleagues.

“He’s had so many I don’t think you can define him with one horse. He’s had too many. I call him the greatest trotting trainer of all time, but he’s had great pacers too. To me, when I think of him, I don’t think of one horse, I think of many horses. And some he drove. He’s a complete horseman,” concluded Burke.

Takter himself is content with his own accomplishments but does rate one quality above all others.

“My consistency for many years. I’ve been very consistent for the last 25 years. Some years are better than others, but I’ve come up with great horses every year,” said Takter “I don’t know how many stallions we have out there. I don’t know how many states we go to that have my stallions - basically all over.

“I have 33 Breeders Crowns and that’s going to be tough to beat,” he continued. “I have four Hambletonian and eight (Hambletonian) Oaks, basically I’ve won everything I want to win.

There’s a few pacing races I want to win but I have a couple seconds in those. Overall, we have tremendous results and I’m proud of the consistency.”

With his cold getting the better of him, Takter is ready to sign off on this interview and soon his career. But he wanted to offer one parting thought before he goes.

“I’m so grateful and thankful for America. It’s the most wonderful country on this Earth,” said Takter. “A guy can come from Sweden with nothing and make something and be successful. There’s no other country that does that, and I include both Canada and the United States for harness racing. I’m grateful for that.”

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