Nancy Takter finds Hambletonian glory with Tactical Approach
by James Witherite
As the old saying goes, you never forget your first.
That adage couldn’t hold truer for trainer Nancy Takter than when Tactical Approach completed his victorious pylon-skimming, last-to-first journey to upend divisional standout Oh Well in the $1 million final of the Hambletonian, on Aug. 5 at the Meadowlands—a momentous occurrence literally years in the making.
Before opening her stable in 2013, Takter was the caretaker of 2010 champ Muscle Massive, the second of four Hambletonian winners trained by her dad, Jimmy. Then, she harnessed two Hambletonian runners-up: in 2020, with Ready For Moni, and in 2021, with 55-1 outsider Spy Booth.
While a Hambletonian win is never insignificant, Takter believes that getting her first win in trotting’s most storied race with Tactical Approach is so special because, unlike Ready For Moni and Spy Booth, whom she acquired midstream, Takter was directly involved in every step of his journey to triumph in the classic.
“I went to the farm and picked him out,” the 42-year-old trainer said. “It was full circle to do it with him; that’s why it’s extra special. It’s satisfying. Tactical and I were on this journey together.”
That’s not to say family ties—human or equine—weren’t a factor.
Takter’s dad trained both of Tactical Approach’s parents: His sire, Tactical Landing, won the Breeders Crown 3-Year-Old Colt Trot in 2018, and his dam, Sarcy, earned $261,333 on the racetrack before retiring to broodmare duty at the end of her 3-year-old season. It goes deeper than that, though.
“He actually trained the grandmother and the great-grandmother also,” Takter shared. “He trained Articulate Hanover, the third dam, when I was 12 or 13 years old.”
Given her familiarity with the family, Takter keyed in on Tactical Approach at the 2021 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale.
“There are always these families that you’re drawn to—families that you’ve had experiences with,” she explained. “He comes from a family that’s very deep and a family that I grew up with. And my dad trained Tactical Landing and my parents owned a piece of him, so of course you want to support a stallion that your family owns.
“So, I was trying to find a Tactical Landing that I thought would fit in my program. I went to Hunterton Farm—I’ve had good experiences buying horses from them—and I saw this colt. Sarcy had two previous foals: Double Deceiver’s done very well, and even his sister, Dutiful, was doing really well. I knew that Double Deceiver was a little on the smaller side, so when I saw Tactical, I was pleasantly surprised by his size and conformation. He made my short list when I went to Hunterton, and I actually had him turned out for me that day.
“I discussed primarily with John Fodera that I really liked this colt. And John’s partners with Joe Sbrocco. I picked him out, but I think he was kind of on their radar, too. John Fodera really liked the horse. I didn’t think he was going to be overly expensive because, as nice of a colt he was, he was still kind of immature and a little awkward looking. You had to think, ‘What is this horse going to look like six months from now?’ instead of necessarily what he looks like right now.”
Fodera (as JAF Racing) and Sbrocco, along with Robert LeBlanc and John Fielding, paid $85,000 for Tactical Approach at Lexington—a pleasant surprise for Takter, who ultimately bowed out of the partnership from an ownership standpoint.
“I was planning on taking a piece of the horse myself, because I really liked him, but with all the partners, there were more people than pieces, so I unfortunately gave up my piece,” she explained, adding she was prepared to shell out as much as $150,000 for the colt. “But, I had to do what I had to do for the group. We bought the horse, I brought him home, and started going to work.”
It took a while for Tactical Approach to get his rookie season off the ground. On July 23, 2022—a month or so after his peers—he qualified, at the Meadowlands, winning by 39 lengths in 1:55.4.
“He showed ability, obviously,” Takter said. “We decided that we would send him to Kentucky, and we raced him in the Commonwealth Series. He was impressive in that series.”
He won those first two starts at the Red Mile, defeating Espresso by 8¼ and 6¼ lengths, respectively, before stepping up into the Championship Series in his third career start. Although he still trotted in 1:54, the class hike resulted in a seventh-place finish behind Kilmister.
“He wasn’t really healthy, if I remember right,” Takter explained. “It was his third lifetime start; maybe he wasn’t ready for it.”
A pair of fifth-place finishes in the Commonwealth Series wrapped up Tactical Approach’s rookie season, in which he banked a paltry $36,500. But with plenty of potential and room to grow, time was on his—and Takter’s—side.
“He was big, immature, and just really big-gaited,” Takter said. “He was consistently trotting in 1:54; it’s just that he wasn’t ready at 2 to go in 1:52, which they need to do these days. He had the tools, but he didn’t really have the strength to use all of them. But he had a great attitude.”
After a brief turnout, it was time for Tactical Approach to go back to work. And for what he needed to become a champion racehorse, that meant interval and strength training on a deep sand straightaway.
“He just got stronger and stronger and stronger,” Takter said. “I have Open pacers—like Red Right Hand—and he crushes them on the straight track. They’re tired, and he’s just plowing—he could go two more intervals. He got the strength training that he needed over the winter, and that’s what he was lacking as a 2-year-old—just the strength to carry his big body.”
Tactical Approach started his 3-year-old campaign with a pair of qualifying wins, both in line to Takter’s assistant trainer, Josert Fonseca. But, now with what Takter described as a “big-league horse” in her barn, there was still one piece of the puzzle missing: a driver. Yannick Gingras, the colt’s primary driver at 2, would likely be tied to Ron Burke trainee Celebrity Bambino instead, but Takter didn’t have to look far to find her solution.
“I thought, ‘I need to find this horse a driver that’s going to work and that’s going to fit his style of racing,’” she shared. “I texted Scott Zeron at that point and asked him who he had for 3-year-old trotting colts coming back. He said that he really didn’t have a lot, so that worked to my advantage.
“So, Scott was available, and I thought Scott would be a good fit for (Tactical Approach). I figured the horse liked to race from off the pace—like that’s how he would do his best work—and Scott’s a very patient driver. Also, I had a horse coming back that didn’t have as much stakes and race experience as a lot of the other colts did, and Scott, being a patient kind of driver, could teach him how to race while still being competitive.”
Just as in his rookie season, Tactical Approach won his first two starts as a sophomore: a 1:52.3 score in a conditioned trot at the Meadowlands and a 1:52.1 win in a New Jersey Sire Stakes preliminary—in wire-to-wire fashion both times, oddly enough. He started to show his meddle more as the series progressed, closing from well off the pace for third in the second preliminary and a dead-heat fourth—behind Air Power and Oh Well—in the final.
“He was getting weird races—he was drawing bad and kind of in bad spots,” Takter said. “In the second leg, he came :54 his back half with a :25.4 last quarter. At that point, I was like, ‘This horse can go.’ Scott was really confident in him. He knew we had the horse; we just needed things to go our way a little bit.”
After a sparkling 1:51.1 overnight win at the Big M on June 23, Tactical Approach began ramping up in a big way. He set the pace through most of his $34,900 division of the W.N. Reynolds, only to give way to Celebrity Bambino and Oh Well in deep stretch. His third-place finish prompted Takter to make a small but significant change—hardly unlike the strategy her dad used with one of his star performers.
“If you look at Moni Maker, my dad switched her bridle all the time,” Takter explained. “I put cheek rolls on (Tactical Approach) because I thought if he could see the horses a little more, it would keep his attention. He’s an honest horse; he wants to win. I think, with the blind bridle, he couldn’t really see (the other horses) until they passed him. And once they’d already passed him, he’s too big to sprint a short distance like that.”
Tactical Approach was third again in his $138,500 Stanley Dancer division, on July 15, and after a week off, he drew post eight in his Hambletonian elimination. The colt ended up second-over on the first turn after being looped by Winner’s Bet, and after his cover stalled on the far turn, he was forced three-wide and worked to save third behind Celebrity Bambino and French Wine—an effort that was more than enough to make the final, but more importantly instill confidence in his connections.
“He raced really well; he was parked the entire mile,” Takter said. “Yannick (Gingras, with Celebrity Bambino) got the jump on everybody coming down the stretch, and it’s tough to make up ground when somebody has the jump on you.”
The week between the elimination and the final wasn’t particularly strenuous for Tactical Approach, aside from a 2:20 training mile Wednesday—“just to let him stretch out a little bit and make sure he’s sound,” according to his conditioner. But with sickness going through the Takter stable, the main concern was keeping the horse healthy.
“We have our main barn but then we have outside stalls, and Tactical Approach happens to live in the outside stalls,” Takter noted. “It was hot and humid for a couple weeks, so I was like, ‘Let’s move horses inside,’ but everyone was getting sick, so I was like, ‘Everybody can move inside, but Tactical stays outside by himself.’ So we actually kind of quarantined him away from the rest of the horses. So he stayed in his original stall. For him, it wasn’t any different.”
Come race day, Takter had to scratch Magic Hill from the New Jersey Sire Stakes final for 2-year-old male trotters due to sickness, but fortunately, Tactical Approach was in top shape. Despite drawing the outside post, he worked quickly to the pegs, saved ground through the mile, and motored up the inside through the final eighth to nab Oh Well in the final 40 yards.
“I don’t even feel like he had to work that hard,” remarked Takter. “It was probably one of the nicer races he had all year! He didn’t have to do a lot of work, he sprinted what, the last half.”
Tactical Approach’s :53.4 final half was proof that his trainer’s tactical approach—pardon the pun—paid off.
To this point, most of Nancy Takter’s success has come with pacers, and of course three-time Breeders Crown winner Manchego among the trotters. So, to train a Hambletonian winner gave her renewed satisfaction.
“I’ve had a lot of success with pacers, but I grew up with trotters,” said Takter, who became the third woman to train a Hambletonian winner, joining Linda Toscano (Market Share, 2012) and Paula Wellwood (Marion Marauder, 2016). “My dad never had many pacers—maybe one or two here and there. I always say to my dad, ‘I can’t stand these damn trotters!’ because they frustrate you. You can’t just throw the lines at a trotter and have it trot.
“My dad always tells me, ‘You’re not old enough to train trotters. You’re too young. One day, you’ll get it, and you’ll have a great one, and you’ll be like, oh, wow.’ So now, the running kind of thing has been, ‘I only like trotters who are as fast as pacers.’ I always said that when I had Manchego because she was like training a pacer.
“To get a Hambletonian win makes me feel more confident in my ability to train a trotter,” Takter concluded. “This horse, I trained him down and I had him all winter by myself—I started training him fast, trained him for the first time in a race bike, switched his shoes—I think I learned a lot and grew a lot on this horse. It’s really satisfying that this horse was the one that won the Hambletonian for me.” HB
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