Day At The Track

Remmen brothers add record to triumphs

10:04 PM 16 Mar 2008 NZDT
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Ray Remmen
Ray Remmen
Photo by Michael Lisa - Lisa Photo, Inc.

The other day the Brothers Remmen achieved a record that received modest attention but was a milestone that the transplanted Saskatoon natives truly cherish.

When Symphony In Motion won the $60,700 Night Styles Final on March 6, 2008, it marked victory 1,500 at the Meadowlands Racetrack for the Remmens – 60-year-old Ray and Larry, who turns 55 on April 5.

They are the winningest trainers in the track’s history.

You might say they had an advantage – they started on Day One of the track’s existence, winning the first race on September 1, 1976, the night the gates opened.

Thirty-one years later, they still occupy a barn in the stable area of the Meadowlands, relying on hard work, hay and oats and a partnership that has endured.

“It has been close to 35 years,” Ray Remmen said the other morning, referring to working with his brother, Larry. “We never let the horses come between us. We don’t argue over any horse. The relationship is too important. There’s no power struggle.”

When it became the style, the duo was listed as the Ray Remmen Stable with Larry Remmen as the trainer. They were always a team, but Ray was also the driver and front man. He has given up both those roles and now happily works for Larry.

“I’m there every day,” said Remmen. “I do my share. I would be at the races every day if it wasn’t for the tv; I watch them on RTN. I’m done driving. I haven’t driven since I turned 60 [on May 28].

“I think I was only adequate on my best day,” noted Remmen, always modest and self-deprecating. “Compared to these guys, it was time for me to hang it up. I don’t belong out there anymore. I just can’t compete. I’ll qualify the odd horse now and then.

“I have nice hours,” he conceded. “I go to the barn at six in the morning. I’d like to say I stay to 11 each morning but sometimes I don’t stay that long. It’s good to be retired.’

In the early years of the Meadowlands, the Remmens were likely to fill two barns with horses, seemingly having an endless source of fresh stock shipping in from Canada.

From 1976 to 1992, the Remmens won four training titles at the Meadowlands [1980, 1982, 1985 and 1988] and finished in the Top 5 in 14 of those 17 years.

Ray was inducted into the Canadian Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 1991. He entered the US Hall of Fame in Goshen, New York in 1998.

Remmen will be the first harness horseman inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame when he will be honored on Saturday, June 14, 2008 at the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina.

From the mid-1960s until he moved to New Jersey a decade later, Remmen, a third generation horseman, plied his trade in his home province of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and Regina.

Remmen, who now lives a few miles from the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, NJ, still gets home to the Canadian prairies at least twice a year. His mother passed away last year but his father, Ivar, will be 86, and his two sisters and a slew of other relatives are still in Saskatchewan.

“I have some friends from high school that I go back to play golf with,” he noted. “I’ll be going again for the induction, of course.”

Middle brother Gordon races in Edmonton, Alberta. Ray points out how well the 57-year-old Gordon is doing at the current Northlands Park meet, which began three weeks ago.

“Their meet just started out there and, as we speak, Gordon started 10 horses, won eight races and finished first and second, about a 900 average,” the proud older brother said.

“He does quite well up there with 10 to 15 horses, but he’s gotten off to a great start. He raced up there before he came to work with us [at the Meadowlands] and spent around 10 years with us. He’s probably been back up there around 10 years.”

Ray and Larry have about 35 horses in training these days, including Ohio-bred and Iowa-based Mercantileexchange.

Mercantileexchange is typical of the Remmen success story. He was sent to them to race at the Meadowlands. He won the opening round of the Matt’s Scooter Series and was runner up in the second leg last Friday night.

The Remmen barn has long thrived on being the barn of choice for entrusting a horse by trainers from other parts of North America.

“Mercantileexchange came through a friend of ours that we’ve trained horses for over the years named Jeff Cox,” Remmen explained. “He recommended that they [Delaware based owners Samuel and Mark Jacobs and Ronald Reed, who acquired the pacer in October] send the horse to us.

“We’re not getting all that many horses that way now,” he said. “No one gets many horses out of Canada any more. Not nearly as much as when the Meadowlands first opened, and we’d get a lot of Canadian horses. Now the Canadian horses don’t have to leave Canada because their program is so much better.

We still get a few from Ohio and Kentucky.

“Our one owner, Mr. [John] Lichtenberger, retired from his tire business, and he has about 20 horses,” he explained. “If it wasn’t for his patronage, we’d have kind of a small stable.

“The owners we get are from horses directed by another trainer, horses that we got through our peers,” Remmen noted. “It’s a great compliment if you’re recommended by your peers, but owners aren’t really migrating toward us.

“Owners seem to look for younger people,” he added. “When we came in, we took horses from some of the older trainers and we sort of replaced them; now we’re getting replaced.

“We’re not ready to leave, but we just don’t attract and never really did attract a lot of owners,” he said. “We have done well but when we attracted horses that were shipping from out of state, it was because the trainer recommended us, not the owner.

“That’s probably because I was a driver-trainer for such a long time,” he said, making light of his own driving skills despite 2,873 career victories and $34 million in earnings. “People weren’t really into that and preferred to send their horses to trainers who would get the leading drivers at the track.”

Ironically, that is probably due to one of Remmen’s friends, the man that changed the world of harness racing and put the spotlight on catch drivers – John Campbell.

“It’s become, like any other sport, very specialized,” he explained. “At one time driver-trainers were the common thing. The only reason you were a catch driver 30 years ago was that you didn’t have enough horses of your own.

“John changed all that 25 years ago when he figured out there was more money in just driving instead of training,” he continued.

“He was the guy that gave up his stable completely. There were other catch drivers before John but nobody who gave up their stable and didn’t have any horses and started choosing horses at their value, drive the best horse in the race. Before that, they drove for their friends.

“John drew a line in the sand and said ‘I’ll drive the best horse,’” Remmen noted. “And if he got listed on four or five, he was very good at handicapping and usually picked the right one. He didn’t let family or friendship interfere with any of that.

“It proved to be the thing of the future and the right thing at that time,” he added. “And the industry was changing at that time, and he was just a little ahead.”

Remmen’s list of “firsts” at the Meadowlands are well known. He won the first race ever contested at the track on opening night, September 1, 1976 with Quick Baron.

When the Hambletonian switched homes in 1981, Remmen drove the first winner in New Jersey, Shiaway St. Pat. The Remmens were also the first to hit the 1,000 victory plateau for a trainer and now the 1,500-win level.

The Remmen Stable also produced the 1990 Horse of the Year, Beach Towel, who won the Little Brown Jug, Meadowlands Pace and Breeders Crown as a three-year-old en route to post season honors. Beach Towel, who banked more than $2.5 million, was enshrined in the Living Horse Hall of Fame in 2005.

These days, Remmen, the grandfather of two, says his lifestyle has not changed much “except I watch the races instead of competing in them.

“It would seem awfully strange not working together [with Larry],” Remmen noted. “He helped me for 25 years, and now I hope I can help him for as many years.

“I’d say we’ve had longevity,” he said.

“It’s not like we were winning all the races or that hot. We’ve been very fortunate over the years. I’d say winning those two races, the Jug and the Hambletonian, and having Beach Towel were high points. But the biggest sense of accomplishment is what we’ve done at the Meadowlands, to be the leaders. And we did that together, Larry and me.

“It’s been very good,” Remmen said, reflecting on his partnership. “He’s done most of the work, and I’ve been able to take the bows.

“I enjoy training the horses,” he added. “If I won the lottery tomorrow I’d still be training horses.”

Carol Hodes

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