by Allison Conte
Tell us about yourself and how you got involved in harness racing?
(Laughs) How far back do you want to go? My mother was a single mother and we borrowed the neighbor’s truck and it smelled like horses. I said, “What is this smell?” I was 12. He said, “Well I have horses.” Next thing you know I was hanging around the track at Sudbury. There was one track in Sudbury, it was Sudbury Downs. Then I kind of did it as a summer job, I wanted it to be my hobby.
I went to the university and I got a degree in political science and there were really no jobs for me when I got done and I was always pretty good at training horses and my hobby became my profession.
Have you ever had a horse like All Bets Off before? Was it something you thought about or dreamed of?
Are you kidding me? No. I’ve had some nice half-mile track horses over the last few years but never like him. All Bets Off–everything that’s happened from the time I bought him to the time I trained him down to the time the Burke camp came in, just the way they treated me and treated my wife, everything dealing with them was top notch. That horse and everything has just been a great ride. I’ve been fortunate enough for them to include me and my wife and to give us the percent in the deal. We just can’t be happier.
What was the day like at Harrisburg when you first bought All Bets Off?
All Bets Off was the first yearling I had ever bought in my entire life. I probably should have stopped right there. He was the first one and I remember when I signed the piece of paper I was shaking. The girl goes, “Are you alright?” I said, “This is the first baby I ever bought.” She says, “Umm, you paid $7,000.” I knew how much I paid! I was shaking, I couldn’t write my name. And I’m not a nervous individual. I had to ask her to hold the clipboard. A $7,000 horse you know, to some of the big boys, what’s $7,000? Just a flick in the pan, nothing. To me I thought my whole life was coming down now.
What drew you to him?
I wasn’t really sure what I was going to buy. I knew I wanted to buy a New York bred. I was looking at the Art Majors and the American Ideals and the Bettors Delights and I really did like the Bettors Delights, just the way they looked. I did my homework, every year you look and the Bettors Delights they’re all over the (program) page (in New York Sires Stakes races). It just seemed like the right breed to go with. My friend knew the mother Amber Penelope, his dad raced against her in the OSS (Ontario Sires Stakes) years and years ago. She was a Dexter Nukes filly, so we’re talking old breeding. All Bets Off was the 14th.
By far All Bets Off is the best horse she ever produced. They pulled him out of the stall and my friend went, “Ah he’s too small.” I said, “Yeah but everything I’ve learned over the years looking at a horse- he stands perfect, he’s the right color, he’s got one white sock. Everything that guys had told me over the years to look for he had.” I thought he showed nice. My friend said, “Nah I don’t want him.” I marked in my book: small but showed nice. I was standing in the back ring and I thought: Well I’m gonna put my hand up for this foal from this mare. She was an OK producer but nothing stellar.
When did you start to think he was something special?
First time I trained him I thought “Wow, this is a nice little horse.” So the next time we trained I went with my Well Said filly and I got a friend of mine to train him. My friend came off and said, “Holy crap, this is a nice little horse.” I had three or four other people drive him down training and absolutely every single person would come off the track and say you’ve got a bear cat here. I go “Get out of here guys I just paid $7,000 for him.” But every time we asked him to go more he went more.
The day we qualified him at Georgian guys were looking at him and going “Where’d you get that one?” I go “Well I bought him for $7,000 at Harrisburg.” (Laughs) I’m like chest-out, you know, shoulders up.
And then we raced him accordingly and that day at Batavia I thought I had a really good chance to beat He’s Watching. I probably was the only one who thought that other than my driver, and we almost did. And then the phone started ringing.
Tell me about the decision to sell the horse?
I called my partner and he set the price and a lot of people came close but nobody would give us what we wanted, and I thought, “nope, I’m gonna keep him then.” And then the Burke camp stepped right up and said we’ll give you what you want or we’ll give you this. I went, “Wow that’s even better than what I want.” They offered me the percent, they said, “Would you like to stay involved with the horse?”
Was it hard to hand him over to another trainer?
(Laughs) Yes. I tell everybody the same thing. My owner asked me that. He said, “I’m glad it was hard.” That was exactly what his words were. He said, “If it wasn’t hard it would have meant you didn’t like him.” But when they cancelled the slot agreement in Ontario it affected my bottom line. So I needed something to offset that loss.
My plan all along was to buy babies and to market them and if the price was there then to sell…Did I want to keep him? Yes, but again they met my price…As a business man it was a good business decision. As a trainer of horses… every time that colt races I tell myself, that could be me. But it’s been one hell of a ride.
Were you surprised that he beat McWicked?
Was I shocked he beat him? No! Because we had $50 to win on him. When he (All Bets Off) was 9-1 I said pshhh! We dropped $50 on him to win. I thought the only horse who could beat McWicked was mine, so I said at 9-1 I’m taking those odds! Then he dropped to 7-1 but hey, I was happy with that. The boys all got a free round on me.
What’s something about All Bets Off that the fans might like to know?
There is absolutely not one bad thing. He’s like a country song. There’s nothing. I would say he’s push button, he’s well-mannered, there’s nothing that colt did wrong from day one. Nothing. He’s a stud colt, he might nip a little bit, but he’s a stud colt so you expect that. But when you tell him whoa, he listens.
At my place they always had to stop outside to unhook. He was push-button. He would stand there and wait in the aisle way while to put the jog cart on him. He’s just special. He’s little but I’ve always told everybody, “He’s a half-mile horse with big track speed.”
This interview is part of our new weekly features of faces in the sport, from fans to owners, trainers to grooms.