Day At The Track

Getting deep inside Tim Tetrick's head

03:30 AM 10 Aug 2009 NZST
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Tim Tetrick
Tim Tetrick

Tim Tetrick is harness racing's youngest and fastest driver to ever reach the 5,000 win plateau. He is the reigning back to back driver of the year, and more importantly at the age of 27, represents the future of a sport whose fate is still to be determined. Recently, we sat down after a night of live racing at Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack in Chester, PA.

Brett Sturman: You first came here (Chester) a couple years ago, and it seems that every horse you sat on the first time, was live. Horses that were 20/1 in the week's prior, were now going off at 2/1 with you in the bike for the first time, and winning. Is there anything that you can get out of a horse that others can't?

Tim Tetrick: I really don't know exactly. There's skill involved, but all these guys are pretty talented. When I first came here, we had Tony Morgan, and you had a couple other guys that were good, but now we have Yannick (Gingras) and those type guys to face everyday. And now I get a lot of leeway on the track too, I guess you could say. It's not that I was any hungrier than I am now, because I want to win every race that I'm in. But then I was fresh, I was younger, and I was trying really hard and that goes a long way.

BS: Generally speaking, in terms of what is needed to win a race, what percent would you say is the horse, and what percent would you say is the driver?

TT: It's probably 75% horse, 25% driver. Because if you take a 52 (1:52) pacer against all other 52 pacers in the field, and you have a two second faster driver on one of the horses; in that situation a driver can make a difference. Right now at the bigger tracks it's almost all catch drivers. You've got some top level guys, some "B" level guys, and it does makes a difference. If I'm up one week on a horse, and the next week a lesser level guy is up, I'm going to get more breaks on the racetrack than him. It's because I get more quality horses. I'm the leading driver here, and that does make a difference. There are so many horses I drive that pay about $10, and if anyone else drove, they'd be 20/1, and for some reason they win. I can't always explain it, but my dad taught me a long time ago to drive the horse, not the race.

BS: Was there ever a particular moment when you first knew that you were going to make it this big?

TT: You know, it's hard to say. I got lucky and it just started steamrolling when I first got out here. I went to Dover, got really good down there, started winning four or five (races) a night, and picked up the Delaware based Southwind Tempo, owned by Toby Lynch. I picked up her, got to travel a bit, and started to win a lot of races. I did good, won a lot of money, and my purse structure was really good too. I made $18 million (2007) and then $19 million (2008) in purses, and nobody has ever done that before. Shame I had to have my hip surgery, because I would have broken $20 million last year. I was only $300,000 away with three weeks left.

BS: There's no way you could have held off on the surgery for a few more weeks so that you could reach the $20 million mark last year?

TT: I had to do the surgery. I was in so much pain, from May (2008) all the way on. It hurt before that, but really started hurting from May on. I couldn't lay down. I had to sleep on a La-Z-Boy, because it hurt to lay down straight, and I'm still not over it. I had over a month off after the surgery, but I'm still tired because I hardly get any days off. And when I do get a day off, I have to go somewhere, and try to entertain my girlfriend [laughs].

BS: How are you feeling these days, right now?

TT: I am pretty tired now, I hurt my ribs when I got in that spill a couple weeks ago (baby race at the Meadowlands). I can hardly breathe, it hurts so bad. It hurts to raise my arms or anything. Our sport is dangerous, people don't realize that. We're going 30 to 35 miles per hour, with horses nose to helmet, going fast, in and out. Just think about it, it's a thousand pound animal. They don't always do what you want. If they want to run off with you, they're going to run off with you. There are times you'll try to leave with one, and then you'll get their throttle stuck, and they go too fast and stop early at the top of the lane, because you can't ration out the speed. You can't make them do anything they don't want to. Its an amazing sport, it really is.

BS: I think it would be fair to say that most people don't fully realize all that goes into driving these horses; I'm sure a lot of people just assume it's like driving a car through traffic.

TT: No, its not like that at all. I wish we could put a camera on the race bike, or on our helmets, where they could see us in the race from all those different angles. Some of the angles that we're putting these horses in, it's pretty amazing.

BS: You're driving day in and day out against nearly the same drivers, what's the competition like?

TT: It's very, very competitive, everybody wants to win every race their in. You know, some races you'll have a 1/9 shot, and you might get a break. You'll leave out of the 8 hole, and someone will let you drop in 3rd. Somebody is giving you that hole, because the next race they might be the 1/9 shot and they'll be looking for that same hole. It's not fixing races or anything, its just working together because everybody is trying to make as much money as they can. Usually if I've got the inside and even if it's only the third favored horse, I'll want to get that favorite in front of me so I can follow him. It's a mental mind game out there, you try to outsmart everybody without hurting them. I always used to like to say some of the older guys that I drove with, like Dave Magee -- they'd work you over on the track, without you knowing, and I learned a lot from that. (Brian) Sears at the Meadowlands is very good at that too, in getting you where they want you to be, without you even knowing it.

BS: You mentioned Dave Magee just now. I assume you benefitted a lot from what you learned during your time in Chicago before coming here?

TT: People don't give Chicago credit because of its state today, but there were 5 to 6 drivers that were really, really good when I was there. You had Tony Morgan, Andy Miller, Pat Berry, and Dale Hiteman was 10 years younger. Those guys were in their prime then, and they taught me a lot. I learned a lot, and that was the toughest driving colony I've ever been in. Dave Magee, I think he might be the best ever. He didn't win some of the bigger races that others out here have won, but going against him day in and day out back then was very tough.

BS: How do you decide racing strategy before each race?

TT: I mainly just go off the program, and what the trainer says. But in our business, the trainer usually says the horse is good every time [smiles]. So, you just go on how they feel in the post parade, and how the program looks. These horses are animals though, and they get sick one week here and there. Horses are just like humans, they have bad days, and aren't machines. Some weeks they're good, some weeks they're bad. Little things can happen. They might get parked too fast to the quarter in :26:4 one week, and the next week you might get there in :27:3; it makes a big difference. There are a lot of variables.

BS: I'm sure you get this all the time, but seeing as how you're out on the track nearly every single day, and often times at different tracks, do you ever get tired?

TT: Definitely, definitely. Thank God I love this so much, because it is really hard at times. I hear a lot of people warn me, "Be careful Tim, you're burning candles with both hands." Because I do qualifiers, and I do races. I'll be right back here in the morning for Tuesday qualifiers (Tim had just finished 13 races this night, and it was now about 10:00 PM). And the Meadowlands, they're just starting to slow down, but they've been doing all these baby races, sometimes 20 a day. I'll do qualifiers, plus racing another three days a week up there, plus racing and qualifiers here also. A lot of times I'll start 9:30 in the morning, where qualifiers don't end until about 2:00 in the afternoon. And then you've got to go get something eat, and either come right back or travel again, and check in by 6:00 for the night races. Sometimes I'll come back down here to race at night after being at the Meadowlands in the morning. It makes it tough.

BS: In dead tight photo finishes, do you guys usually know who wins?

TT: Sometimes. But some of these angles are really tough. Here (Chester) for example, the inside really gives an advantage from our angle on the track. In the 11th race tonight, I thought I won, but that horse on the inside (Next Flight) beat me, and I thought for sure I did win.

BS: Is there any race in particular that you have circled as being the next one that you'd like to win?

TT: I'd love to win the Hambletonian and the Little Brown Jug, but they're very tough to win. You need to have a good horse and a lot of luck. I did win the Oaks a couple years ago (Danae), but would love to win the Hambletonian.

BS: A lot of times, and especially at Chester, you are listed sometimes on half the horses in the field when the overnight sheets come out. What factors go into your decision making?

TT: I try to take the best horse. I always try to take the best horse, in my opinion. Now it's a little different if you've got a top trainer that you drive a hundred horses a month for, and then you've got a top trainer you drive only five a month for. I'd give some leeway to the guy I drive most for. But in general, I mainly just try to take the best horse.

BS: Are some of those decisions tougher than others? Do you find it challenging at times, having to make certain choices?

TT: Oh yeah, that's the worst thing in my business, having to make choices. I wish I never had to do it. There are times where I almost wish I had an agent where I could just give him the green light, and say "You call the owners, you pick the horses, and you do everything." I hate doing that. Because everyone wants you to drive, and you want to drive for them too, you hate disappointing. One thing I've always hated doing is hurting people's feelings. It's not personal when you don't take their horse, but you still feed bad because you know they try to put you up, they want you to drive, and when you can't do it, it's hard. I'm not even here certain days and I still get listed. I think when the Meadowlands ends in a couple weeks, I'll come back here full time, and get a lot more picks. Last year I was getting sometimes four or five horses to pick from in a race, and that's why I win most of my races - because I get good horses.

BS: Last year nearly everyone in the industry seemed to be up in arms over the whipping controversy. What's your take?

TT: Honestly, I think its stupid. I agree with protecting a horse from abuse and all that, I don't think that is right, but to take away or restrict the use of a whip is totally wrong. Like we said, it's a thousand pound animal and we need the whip to keep them corrected, and keep them on their game. For the few gamblers we have left, if you take our whip away, and we're coming down the lane sitting there looking like this [use your imagination], then they're really going to be mad and think we're stiffing. I think it all lies on the judges to do their job. If I'm getting over-aggressive and get mad once - if I over-do it and I hit a horse 10 times when I should only have hit him 5 times and I'm finishing 7th anyway - call me in and fine me $10,000. I totally agree with that. But if I'm going for $500,000, I'm coming down by the wire, I'm a half length off and I hit him four times really hard, don't fine me for that. The top 20 guys - you don't have a problem with them, you don't see anyone over here doing that.

What makes it look bad is when people hear that sound [wham], when it hits the shaft, that pop. We're not hitting the horse. We're hitting the shaft, trying to make noise, trying to scare them. And they don't understand if you look at the purse and its $35,000, that's a lot of money if you're first or second. That's money that pays the bills. These horses, they have the best life. If they weren't doing this, they'd be pulling an Amish buggy. If these horses get a little sick or temperature, the vet is in there working on them. The grooms take such good care of them. The horses get done up everyday, three meals a day, get all the hay they can eat, and still some people think they're mistreated, but we know they aren't.

BS: I obviously fully agree, and I think if people came out here in person to actually see for themselves, they'd look at the sport in a different light.

TT: Right out here [pointing to the apron at Chester], this is one of the best tracks to watch a race from. You can be right on the apron, and you're literally within the an eyelash of a horse. You can hear the horses, you can see the breath coming off them, and you can see the horses come off the ground, up close. Down the lane you can hear us yelling, all fighting for the win.

We need to get people our age like me and you, out here to watch the races. All we need to do is get a fan base, and I don't care if they bet or not. We just need a fan base. We know people are never going to bet the amount here that they bet up there (where the slots are). We just want them to come here, and check it out. We don't have fans right now. You look around here, its deserted. It's a shame. People here are going to play the slots no matter what you do. But this place, they don't even want the people out here, they want them right up there playing the slots. What we need to do, in our business -- we need to take some of that money and invest it right back in the sport. I keep telling the people in our sport to take some of the money we're making from the casinos, and put it back into the sport.

BS: [nodding]

TT: I went to the Running Aces track in Minnesota not too long ago; I went to visit my dad because he got hurt recently. And I went to the races one night just to see what it was like. The entire place was packed, the entire apron was packed. There were tellers on the inside, tellers on the outside, and the lines were jammed. They had $1 hot dogs and $2 drafts, and the place was packed. Not top notch horses, not top notch drivers, purses weren't great, but they weren't too bad for the horses that they have there. It was just a great time.

It was so cool. I walked in about 10 minutes before the first race, and there was this little girl, and she's dragging her mom, telling her the horses were going to go off without them. They were all just screaming for the horses there. When they came down the stretch, I got chills just sitting there. It was a fun sight to see.

And this place, you wouldn't even know this place was here. I was at Philadelphia Int'l Airport last year, and had time to kill before a flight to Lexington. So I go to the bar, and this person about our age comes up to me. I was talking to her for about 10 minutes, and told her I race horses. She said, "My grandfather used to talk all the time about going to see the horses at Brandywine." And she said, "There's nowhere here to go, there's nowhere close." She had no idea there was even a track here. She continued to say "I've been to the (Chester) casino, but there's no track there." She didn't even know there was a track, they have no clue. And if I owned this place, I'd make sure there were TV's everywhere that shows the horses. At Tioga (Downs), no matter where you go in the casinos, they have TV's all over that show the horses racing, so you can at least see it.

BS: At age 27, and with your current status as back to back driver of the year, in many ways you represent the future of the sport. And certainly the younger generation of harness racing can most likely relate to you more-so than the older drivers. With being in that unique position, is there anything possible that you can do personally to help the sport?

TT: That's why I'm here talking to you right now, to do anything I possibly can. I always try to put on a good show, and be very nice to everyone. If there's a little kid down here, I'm always trying to stop over, say hi, sign autographs, and give my whips away after the races.

I'm just scared that in 10 years we won't have a sport. We're in trouble, we are. The current structure is just a band-aid. Because as soon as this casino can figure out a way not to give all this money to us, they're going to do it. That's one of the reasons we're all working so hard. I'm going to make as much money as I can right now. My education is limited, and I'm going to make as much as I can and save it, while we have this subsidy. It's going to go sooner or later. If I can make 10 to 15 million in purses or as much as I can in the next 5 to 6 years, and save, and try to invest in the right places, I could have 5 years to go back to school if I wanted at some point.

BS: With that being said, what needs to happen to re-build the sport, so that it is still here, and strong in 10 years?

TT: It's all on the sports shoulders. We have some money now we can run with. For the most part, all the track owners aren't going to do anything. The Meadowlands is in trouble right now, and we can not lose the Meadowlands. That's the premier place that we have. It's a mile track, and people will bet a mile track. People don't like betting the half mile, and they don't like betting the 5/8ths mile as much. They don't feel you have a fair shot at winning. You can draw the 10 hole at the Meadowlands and you still have a shot at winning. If you draw the 8 hole at Yonkers, you're in trouble unless you're just seconds the best.

I think its our job to take some of that slot money, and put it back into the sport, and put it into advertising. If these slot tracks (Yonkers, Chester) took even a small fraction out of each nights card and used it for advertising, they could put billboards up all around Philadelphia and New York City. You know, put up a billboard with a big picture of a horse and mention live racing 5 nights a week. Or even a commercial during some of the Phillies games. Take that commercial James (Witherite) put together; the one for 30 seconds where I'm coming down the lane fighting for the win in the (2007) Ben Franklin Pace. Put that right there on a commercial, put it right in front of everyone; "BOULDER CREEK AND TIM TETRICK!" It's loud, it's exciting, and someone is going to take notice of it. If you continue to see something in front of you, you're going to take notice sooner or later. We have to advertise, we just don't advertise at all right now. You see all these Phillies billboards driving up I-95, there should at least be 1 billboard with a horse. Even if a kid notices it, they can have their parents take them out to see it. Its common sense. There are so many things, so many little things, that would help so much.

BS: Some people say that a problem is that there are too many tracks running right now, too many dates, and that racing should cut back because there just aren't enough gambling dollars to go around. What do you say?

TT: I don't think we race too much at all. All these tracks that have 180 days, don't let them cut back. Let them race 180 days because there are enough horses to go around. I think we should care more and more about the fans, not the gambling. The gambling is going come once you get people out there. If we can get the people to follow it, come out, eventually they will take a betting interest. They're going to get a program and at least bet $2 on a horse simply because they like the name, that's how it used to be. If you get all the little gamblers to bet, the pools will steadily go up, and that's when you'll get your big gamblers back. Of course, it doesn't help that the tracks don't do anything as it is for the people that play there...

BS: You were recently over in Sweden for the Elitlopp, your first time there. And from pictures and videos that I have seen, it's incredible. What can we learn from racing in Sweden, and what are they doing in that country, that we aren't doing here?

TT: They advertise! When I went there, and got off the airplane, it was amazing, I couldn't believe it. They had 8 different newspapers there in different languages. So I just went to pick up the Swedish paper, to see if there is anything in there about the horses. I opened up the paper, and there were 32 pages all about the Elitlopp. And this is on Thursday, two days before the race. All 32 pages were in color, and they had a big picture on the front page of last years winners. Everything was written in Swedish, but I could read wherever it mentioned the Elitlopp. I'm telling you, there was 4 pages just about me, as if I'm the biggest thing since sliced bread. It was about a half hour ride from the airport to the track, and I saw probably 30 different billboards with horses on it. Over there everyone gambles on the v-75 wager. The billboards had pictures of horses; "Elitlopp '09," "Clash of the U.S. and Sweden." It was just amazing and unbelievable that the newspapers had over 30 pages, I couldn't believe it.

On the day of the race, they had 9 hours of live TV. They played harness racing on TV for 9 hours showing horses, interviews - and here - we'll be lucky to get 1 hour out of the entire year. Over there they probably don't have to pay for the TV time or advertising, because the TV stations want them. It's just a different culture there. Racing is on TV at every bar, it's in all the newspapers, and those people love it.

And I'm telling you that I had gotten chills on the day even before the Elitlopp, when I saw all the people there. I heard them chanting my name when I won one of the races that day. They were like "TIM, TIM, TIM," and I could hear them. I never got chills like that; that was the biggest crowd I've ever seen.

When I was over there, I went to a restaurant at night in one of the bigger cities right by their capital, it was about 20 minutes from the track. It was similar to one of the nicer restaurant in Philadelphia, on Broad Street in the city. I walk in there, I'm eating, and I felt like I had 10 people walk up to me with newspapers, " Tim, Mr. Tetrick, would you sign this for me?" I walked down the street when I left, and people were too shy to say anything, but you could hear them whispering, "Look, that's, that's Tim Tetrick."

BS: Sounds like something I would say actually [laughs].

TT: It was like being Michael Jordon in Chicago. They knew everything about me, everything I did, and all my statistics. They've been trying to get me to come there for two years, ever since I had that good year. They kept trying to invite horses that I was driving, so that I would come. With Buck I (St. Pat), they told Howard (Taylor) that they wanted her mare to come, and said "We'll try to get you an invitation, but I can guarantee you an invitation if you can promise Tim Tetrick will come." I had a limousine pick me up at the airport, take me the hotel, and I went and did autographs and interviews; it was just amazing.

And here, people don't even know who I am. They have no idea. If you dropped me off here in Philadelphia, I'd be hard pressed to find a ride. I was there for three days; never bought a meal, and never bought a drink. I went to the hotel lobby one night to buy a candy bar, he told me "Here, you're Tim Tetrick, you can have it." I'm thinking of moving there [laughs].

Brett STURMAN is a  leadig racing analyst at his harness racing website, and can be reached with any thoughts or comments at his personal email, brett.sturman@gmail.com)

Tim Tetrick at his very best last Saturday winning the $405,000 MISTLETOE SHALEE-FINAL:

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