By Perry Lefko
If you ask Joe Bellino about the excitement that surges through him watching his racehorses, he equates it to the experience he had playing football and baseball in high school.
“It gives me a way to compete when I can’t compete anymore and make money doing it,” the 43-year-old New Yorker says. “I’ve always said if you can get guys who played sports and love playing sports and get them to be (racehorse) owners, it’s the closest you can get to competing again. It gets your competitive juices going.
“If somebody filmed me watching my horses race, they’d think this guy is a lunatic because I’m going crazy from the top of the stretch all the way down the stretch. I don’t care if I’m in a $5,000 claimer. I am involved. When you lose, you try to regroup and train the horse for the next race. That’s what I did in football. You lose a game and I’m back on the field practicing, trying to get better to win the next one. It is competitive. I want to win. I want my horses to win.”
Through his father, Frank, who owned racehorses, Joe and his brother, George, developed a love for the sport and the rush of adrenalin that is part of it. But whereas his father, who owned businesses and looked at racing horses as a hobby, Joe developed a different mentality. He viewed it as a business that needed to be run on a daily basis.
It was with trainer Bruce Saunders in the late ‘90s that the Bellino family started to become a major player in the business. It began with a horse Frank claimed for $100,000. The horse didn’t do well off of the claim with a new trainer and when given back to his previous trainer. Frank was ready to give up on the horse when Joe suggested trying trainer Bruce Saunders. He’d heard about the trainer through a friend, and Saunders had some immediate success.
“When Dad gave me the power to make decisions, I really made it my business and gave the horses to Bruce and the business just really turned around for us,” Joe says.
He spends about eight to 10 hours a day on the horse racing business, everything from billing to watching videos and talking to his trainers about potential purchases.
The Bellinos’ “breakout” horse became PSILUVUHEARTBREAKER, who won more than $1 million.
In 2009, the Bellinos purchased two horses for $300,000. One of them, a two-year-old son of Rocknroll Hanover, would become their first great horse. In 30 career races, RocknRoll Heaven won 20 and earned more than $2.7 million before retired to stud at the end of his sophomore season. He stamped himself as a champion by ending his career with a 10-race win streak that included a world record with back-to-back miles in under 1:50 in his Little Brown Jug elimination race and final. Some of his other notable victories that year included the Breeders Crown, Tattersalls Pace, Battle of the Brandywine and Messenger Stakes.
Following his last season, he was voted Pacer of the Year and Three Year Old Pacer of the Year. He still holds the world record for two-year-olds on a five-eighths mile with a time of 1:50, and three-year-old record on a half-mile track with a time of 1.49 4/5.
“It’s sort of like a dream sequence,” he said. “You want to soak it in, but you can’t because you really don’t believe it’s happening.”
The experience with the horse was bittersweet. His brother George, who was suffering from diabetes, passed away suddenly about two weeks after Rock N Roll Heaven’s final race at age 49.
“That horse will never be replaced; that experience is something I will never have again because every time after the horse raced I would call my brother,” Joe says. “We had a bond. Something would go wrong in the racehorse business and I would call him. I don’t have that now. That’s why Heaven was probably the most special animal that we’ll ever have.”
The following year after Rock N Roll Heaven retired, Bellino purchased another two-year-old-in-training son of Rocknroll Hanover, this one called Pet Rock. He won more than $500,000 in his first season and earned more than $1.9 million before he was retired after his four-year-old season. In his three-year-old year, he won the Art Rooney Stakes and was second in the Meadowlands Pace and the Cane, and third in the Confederation Cup.
There have also been some disappointments along the way for the Bellinos. Muscle Network looked to be a promising three-year-old trotter heading into 2014 after finishing his first season winning the Valley Victory, a $494,750 race. But Muscle Network developed problems in his second season and only raced three times.
The Bellinos enjoyed some early-season success in 2015 when seven-year-old Polak A, an Australian-bred that was purchased privately for a nominal sum, made his debut in North America and won his first two races in the Levy Series for older male pacers. It became an international story in the harness racing industry because the horse had been named after a young Aussie horseman whose career came to a sudden end more than seven years ago in a freak training accident. Polak A’s success in North America developed a following back in Australia and became a feel-good story.
“It is the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, that’s what I can tell you,” Joe says about the roller-coaster ride of owning horses. “One day I can’t believe how bad one of my horses raced, and the next day all of our horses race unbelievable. It can be the most depressing thing or the greatest ever, that’s the way I’ve always described. Buying horses is addictive. I used to be addicted to buying cars. Now I’m addicted to buying horses.”
He is hoping to use his experience in the business to conduct seminars for prospective new owners.
“Listen, I’ve made thousands of mistakes in the business, but once I make that mistake I’m not making it again,” he said. “My idea is to help out the smaller trainers to get new blood into the game. We’ve lost a lot of money learning a lesson in the business. As an owner, if I can help a new guy minimize their mistakes, that’s the main part of my idea. I’m trying to do something.”
“If I can help, I try to help. If somebody wanted to get into the business, go and sit down with an owner who’s been in the business at least 10 years. If they’ve been in the business that long, they’ve had some sort of success.”