Australian Tahnee Camilleri embarks on American Dream
by Chris Tully
People often say, “Once you’ve been bitten by the racing bug, you cannot stay away.”
That saying applies to Tahnee Camilleri, the Australian-born horse trainer who pursued a dream of conditioning harness horses and found herself hoisting one of the most coveted prizes in the sport: a Breeders Crown championship trophy.
Nothing could be further from the truth that she is just a lawyer who decided to become a horse trainer. In fact, she is a dedicated horsewoman who happened to also earn a law degree.
“I am not a lawyer that can help horsepeople or laymen. I am basically a costing lawyer, which is a lawyer for lawyers,” Camilleri said.
As a penalty to stop frivolous claims in Australia, the losing party is often ordered to pay the winning party’s legal fees. The losing party, however, is not going to simply accept what the winning party claims as its legal fees. The losing party brings in third-party attorneys, such as Camilleri, to assess the proper fees.
“I got to look at a client’s file from the first call all the way to the end of the proceeding,” Camilleri said. “It was very interesting, but I still missed the horses.”
Camilleri’s first stint with horses in the U.S. was in 2009, when she trained for nearly a year until the guilt of not finishing college consumed her. She honored her parents’ wishes, went back home, finished school and immediately began working in the legal profession. That lasted five years.
Camilleri’s second trip to the U.S. was in March 2018. She brought two horses over to sell in order to get her horse trading and sales agent E-1 visa and establish residency. Camilleri was advised by her immigration attorney that was the best approach. She returned in August of that year and set out on making a living training, but still bringing horses from her native land to sell due to high demand.
“They sell like hot cakes over here,” Camilleri said. “I try to be very selective in what I bring over so buyers have good results.”
In fact, most people that Camilleri sells horses to are repeat customers. Sometimes she races the horses first, then sells them. Then there are instances in which the imports change hands as soon as they arrive on American soil.
With 15 such transfers to her credit, Camilleri has seen her imports experience great success on the racetrack, including Ideal Lifestyle A, who won a leg of the Blue Chip Matchmaker Series and $127,280 stateside; Sams A Champ A ($78,495); and Shards Halo N ($61,800).
In many instances, the class structure in Australia forces horses with higher lifetime wins into the Open or free-for-all events. This creates an ideal import paradigm, as the horses are actually dropping in class when they get to the U.S.
Although she is actively buying and selling Standardbreds in this country, Camilleri’s true passion is racing.
“I enjoy research,” she said. “I love to look up facts about nutrition and feed, the latest treatments and technology. Some people may think that my five years of college was a complete waste of my life, but I have been able to transfer that sort of critical and logical thinking to horse training. In fact, I have been told that I overthink things.”
Evidence of this can be found immediately upon entering Camilleri’s stable at Gaitway Farm. Several stalls from the barn door sits a large livestock scale the trainer employs to ensure her horses are maintaining their weight and not gaining—or, more importantly, losing—too much weight too fast.
Investigate a little further and it is clear that neatness and organization are very important to Camilleri’s success. Not one blanket or wrap is in plain sight. Instead, there are shelves, baskets, trunks, hooks and order: lots of order. For Camilleri, organization is key.
Often, in harness racing circles and on social media, individuals that have been immediately successful can come under scrutiny. Camilleri has passed all the tests with flying colors.
In 2018, she won half the races she entered while competing primarily at Yonkers Raceway and The Meadowlands. This included a late autumn run of 10 wins in 11 consecutive starts. Camilleri was quick to point out her success was the result of good old-fashioned classification: placing horses in spots where they can win.
“I had a lot of really good horses that were on much easier marks,” she said. “The Australian handicapping system is somewhat peculiar in that once you go up, you cannot come back down. It is based upon how many races you have won.”
For instance, she had some horses racing in the Open classes in Australia that were not performing and making less than $4,000 per start. Therefore, they fit the non-winners of $5,000 in the U.S. and were clearly better stock.
“Over there, every 10 starts a horse can drop a class,” Camilleri said. “They could be in the Open and it may take a year or longer to get out of that class.”
Often the Australian race offices do not take current form into account.
Always humble, Camilleri was quick to discount her swift ascension in the sport.
“It was sort of a perfect storm,” she said. “We were heading into winter [in 2018] and the racing was a little easier. They were nice horses on good mark [in good form back home], and I got the right sort of drives and drivers and everything just worked out.”
Handicappers began to pay attention to Camilleri that year with her string of victories, but it was a fast son of Sweet Lou that really grabbed the industry’s attention in 2019.
Just as had been the case with her native Australian horses, Dancin Lou—who is out of Dancewiththebest, making him a three-quarter brother to world champion Dancin Yankee—amassed a record of 10-1-0-0 as a freshman. The $140,000 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale purchase is owned by David Kryway and 1362313 Ontario LTD and was under the care of Ron Adams as a 2-year-old.
After being transferred to Camilleri for his sophomore season, the colt won five straight races in June-August, with four of them at Yonkers. By then, Camilleri and the horse’s owners knew they had a serious contender on their hands.
“Lou won one night at Yonkers. He came first-over in [1:51.1h],” Camilleri said. “He got on a roll and I thought he was a nice horse, but when he did that, I realized he was a little special.”
So, Camilleri did just what any adventurous and confident horse trainer would do: shipped her entire stable to Red Mile.
Camilleri usually has just seven or eight horses in her barn. With just one other person helping her, she realized that she didn’t have the necessary staff to just leave her stable behind so Dancin Lou could race on a mile track in the Kentucky Sire Stakes. Camilleri’s other performers could ship to Ohio and Indiana to race.
“[Dancin Lou] hit the ground running once he got there,” Camilleri said. “The train kept rolling.”
Arriving in mid-August, Dancin Lou indeed never missed a beat with two wins and a second in legs in those events over the famed red clay, including a 1:48.3 personal best during a warm Bluegrass evening.
“When I first arrived on the backstretch, I was a little overwhelmed about how much work I had to do to set up my barn the way I wanted it,” Camilleri said. “But by the next day when I went on the track, I instantly fell in love with the surface. It was so pretty and I could easily see why people like it so much. The track makes it.”
Hanging around Red Mile a little longer than she anticipated, Camilleri was quick to note the adjustment period.
“I think I was the last person to adopt the whole ‘hanging flowers’ thing,” she said. “But I caved in at the end!”
And hang around she did, as Dancin Lou won a $270,000 division of the Tattersalls Pace over Little Brown Jug winner Southwind Ozzi in 1:49.4.
It was sweet redemption for the team as the colt made an uncharacteristic break behind the gate in the $250,000 Kentucky Sire Stakes final on Sept. 15 and finished 10th. He rebounded from that miscue with a third-place finish two weeks later in an $88,800 division of the Bluegrass Stake, timed in 1:48.4.
Always genuine and pleasant, Camilleri was pressed about future plans for the horse after his triumph over Southwind Ozzi and was perhaps a bit premature in her post-race interview. She stated it was on to the Breeders Crown, but had yet to discuss the situation with Dancin Lou’s owners.
Camilleri recalled being unprepared for the interview.
“I wish I would have worn nicer clothes,” she said. “I think I had yoga pants on, with a gym shirt.”
Camilleri’s inadvertent declaration that Dancin Lou had raced well enough to compete for a Crown amused the colt’s owners.
“We had quite a good little chuckle when we spoke after the race,” Camilleri said. “David Kryway said, ‘I guess we are going to the Breeders Crown?’ And I responded by saying, ‘If that’s OK.’”
Camilleri is appreciative of Dancin Lou and his ability, but she is also equally grateful for the confidence and support his owners have placed in her.
“I believe I was back for about a week and had to set my stable up with assistant trainers and take off with [Dancin] Lou to Canada,” she said. “He can be a little nervous going to new places, so I really wanted to avoid public training centers where there is a lot going on. We landed at Richard’s [Moreau], which is so quiet and beautiful—it was the perfect spot. I just thought it was the best environment for him to stay in.”
Concerned about the expense of the trip and the difficulty of the competition, Camilleri found herself on the sidelines counting horses in their Crown elimination.
“Around the turn, I was counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and thinking I am not going to get out,” she said. “Then it was like the parting of the Red Sea and it was like the little bugger was shot out of a cannon.”
Rallying from sixth place at the head of the stretch for driver Dexter Dunn, Dancin Lou paced his final quarter in :25.4 on his way to a 1:50.1 victory.
With Dunn committed to drive Bettor’s Wish in the Crown final, it was an easy transition to Andy McCarthy, as he had driven the colt in Kentucky.
“There was some pressure, and although we were not the favorite, we were still one of the favored horses,” Camilleri said.
Chris Ryder, trainer of Bettor’s Wish, jumped in the fray with his own take on Camilleri’s presence at Woodbine Mohawk Park.
“Here is the perfect headline,” he said at the Breeders Crown draw. “The Aussie versus the Kiwi.”
Although Ryder had been in this spot before, this was all new to Camilleri, who was approachable and accommodating for interviews, but made it clear the horse came first.
Dancin Lou’s preparation for the Breeders Crown was also somewhat different from what American trainers typically practice, with Camilleri’s focus being on training at longer distances rather than in mile stints.
“I will jog [Dancin] Lou a few laps and then go two miles in 4:35,” she said at the press conference.
Camilleri had plenty of time to find some extra nervousness and doubt prior to Dancin Lou facing the starter at the Breeders Crown. The weather produced an off-track and several pylon- related delays.
Dancin Lou displayed tremendous determination to track down and nail Bettor’s Wish at the finish line to win the $600,000 Breeders Crown final. McCarthy angled out uncovered from fourth with Dancin Lou entering the far turn, while Bettor’s Wish rolled the field to three-quarters in 1:23.
The stretch drive saw Bettor’s Wish ahead and with victory in sight, but Dancin Lou and McCarthy came with a final push to make up a couple lengths late and steal the victory by a head in 1:50.2.
“Around the last turn, I really thought he was just too far back,” said Camilleri. “When you have a good horse like Bettor’s Wish kick away like that, they are very hard to run down. I thought, maybe he will run second, maybe he will run third. But then, the louder I screamed, the faster he went.
“It really was a dream come true. If someone asked me what race I wanted to win, I would say without hesitation a Breeders Crown. I only race pacers, so I cannot say that my biggest dream is to win the Hambletonian. Other races go for more money, but there is nothing as prestigious as the Breeders Crown.”
And the American Dream came true.
Chris Tully is a freelance writer living in New York. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.